Welcome to Earth Day 2019. What are marketers bringing us now?

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Courtesy Michael Mabry

On Earth Day, more than a decade ago, the lead article on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times was headed “Marketing Earth Day Inc.” Written by the director of an environmental agency, the piece opened: “Welcome to Earth Day, brought to you by petroleum powers, big-box developers, old-growth loggers, and chemically dependent coffee companies trying to paint their public image green. Through concerted marketing and public relations campaigns, these greenwashers attract eco-conscious consumers and push the notion that they don’t need environmental regulation because they already are environmentally responsible.”

At the time, the worst offenders included Kraft Foods, cited for promoting Post cereals as having natural ingredients while making them from genetically engineered corn; Clairol, for claiming that Herbal Essences shampoo offered a “truly organic experience,” though its formula included chemicals; General Motors, for picturing its SUVs in habitats as “if they were as natural as the birds,” when they were more harmful to the environment than most other cars. And ExxonMobil, for, with the other oil giants, helping kill the Kyoto Protocol that called for tougher international emissions standards.

I still wonder wonder how much responsibility for corporate greenwashing we graphic designers and agency art directors and copywriters are guilty of sharing. After all, aren’t we the ones who make brands appear to be what they aren’t?

BP, the Biggest Polluter?

No company has come under fire more than BP. Created by the 1998 merger of British Petroleum, Amoco, Atlantic Richfield, and Burmah Castrol, BP was singled out for spending $7 million on its brand identity — the green sunburst now seen everywhere — designed by Landor Associates, and for spending $25 million every quarter for replacing all the signage and for advertising the ‘transformation.’

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In its annual reports, BP describes the logo like this: “A vibrant sunburst of green, white and yellow. Green for environmental responsibility; yellow representing the sun. Called the ‘Helios mark’ after the sun god of ancient Greece, the logo exemplifies dynamic energy in all forms, from oil and gas to solar — which the company delivers to its 10,000,000 daily customers around the world… Now, BP stands for Beyond Petroleum.”

Immediately after the launch, muckrakers shouted: “No, Big Polluter!” And the corporate spinmeisters retorted with: “Big Picture, Best People, Better Products.”

Perhaps falling into the greenwashing trap, the design press lauded the identity. “The branding program repositioned BP from a petroleum company to one focused on the natural energies of wind, water and sun… Landor did more than redesign BP’s visual communications… they guided BP executives to redefine their corporate values and change the very culture of their global offices,” gushed a leading industry magazine.

Tobacco, the biggest smokescreen.

In 1998, the tobacco industry agreed to a $368 billion settlement in the liability lawsuits for wrongful deaths due to cigarette smoking. Tobacco companies were forced to compensate states and class-action plaintiffs for up to $15 billion a year for treating smoking-related diseases; to pay $60 billion in punitive damages for the industry’s deception about the dangers of smoking; and to fund antismoking education campaigns.

In response, Philip Morris Companies Inc. changed its name to Altria Group. At former Philip Morris headquarters on Park Avenue, the lions and crest, associated with cigarette packs, became a mosaic of altruism. The logo — also designed by Landor — is a visual quilt of 25 multicolored squares, with a handsome serif “Altria,” etched into brushed steel on the building facade and into a kinetic sculpture in the lobby space.

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The company was lambasted more for the name change than the design. Editorials decried a “distancing strategy” that aimed to transform a purveyor of illness and death into a beacon of altruism.

The conflict.

Wouldn’t almost every designer love to work on long-term, big-bucks, global programs like the BP rebranding? Or get a contract to help maintain “the external expressions of the brand,” like the pristine white and green oil tanks and trucks pictured in design-school textbooks and awards annuals.

And then there is another kind of award. Among the worst-in-category tributes bestowed on BP was “Earth Day 2000s Greenwash Award,” which stated: “Of all the oil giants, BP has most carefully crafted its image to appear concerned about the environment, out-greenwashing stiff competition including Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell.”

True? I asked an attorney at a prominent environmental law firm. “BP’s claims aren’t one-hundred-percent false, but they are deceptive because they represent a tiny fraction of what is true,” she told me. The financials in the annual report reveal that oil exploration and production account for 80 percent of BP’s activities, and natural gas and alternative energy only three percent.

In its annual reports, Philip Morris revealed itself by calling itself a purveyor of “simple pleasures enjoyed by millions around the globe: cigarettes and beer” (it then owned Miller Brewing) and by extolling its “efforts to sell cigarettes in countries with looser regulations” (and more smokers), like China.

Wouldn’t almost every designer also love to help Altria, which is getting into the cannabis business, design groovy packages for its vapes and THC-laced smokes and elixirs?

I got a little windfall myself from the payout for antismoking campaigns: writing and designing educational materials for schoolkids for the American Cancer Society.

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Antismoking newsletter designed by Visual Language LLC. Luke Lion character and illustrations by George Toomer.

Some things have gotten better.

The Times editorial helped turn an activist movement into a public avalanche. Everyone clamored for green energy and natural foods and beauty products that didn’t contain harmful chemicals. And just about every company began to realize that being green is not only good for the planet, it’s great for business.

Now, in 2019, there’s been a change for the better. “Consumers are more likely to buy from brands that lead with messages of sustainability and ethical business standards,” claims, a kind of ‘Goop’ for the socially conscious. While acknowledging that greenwashing is still rampant, they report that “Some major players are making green commitments with real deliverables.” The site applauded nine multimillion-dollar companies that “have taken powerful, measurable steps to push the needle on corporate sustainability,” among them:

Adidas, for its shoes and apparel made with plastic retrieved from beaches and oceans and its commitment to make all all its products from recycled plastics by 2024; Starbucks, for banning single-use plastic straws by 2020; McDonald’s, for making all its wrappers, straws, and boxes responsibly sourced and recyclable by 2025. Unilever, for its headquarters that’s “an impressive feat in green building design,” expected to cut water and carbon emissions by 50 percent; Danone North America, for achieving B-corp certification, “which designates companies that practice transparency, sustainability and ethical practices across their supply chain, and for being an early adopter of regenerative farming practices”; IKEA, for committing to constructing all its products from recycled materials or making them completely recyclable by 2030, and for developing and selling products like solar panels to help customers save energy at home; and Lyft, which is giving one billion rides on electric vehicles, reducing CO2 emissions by at least 5 million tons annually by 2025.

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NuTonomy’s self-driving electric car being developed for Lyft.

In my immediate part of the world, thanks to citizen activism, the oft-malfunctioning Indian Point nuclear power plant, just 36 miles north of Manhattan, will shut down next year. And one of my friends is a engineer at a company that is growing bio-leather in a lab. Not making it from petroleum, but growing it from living cells.

The worst offenders have barely budged.

In 2019, BP launched its first global ad campaign since the 2010 explosion at its Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused the largest marine oil spill in history. The “We See Possibilities Everywhere” campaign aims to showcase BP’s efforts to embrace clean energy and increase energy production while lowering emissions.

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Skeptics see the campaign as big-time greenwashing. “Their clueless advertising agency [WPP]is apparently quite good at talking them out of serious money for vague and naive ad campaigns,” claims citizen pundit Allen Jones. He writes: “I’d like to bill them for the billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, thanks to how BP screwed up Iran, Iraq and Libya, resulting in wars America ended up fighting at great cost.”

And it looks like Altria is not even trying to be altruistic and abstract any more. Its website states: “We seek to provide category-leading choices to adult consumers while returning maximum value to shareholders through dividends and growth.”​

How are we doing on Earth Day 2019?

Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “advance justice in the areas of water, climate, food, tobacco and democracy,” asks this: “What comes to mind when you imagine celebrating Earth Day this year? Paying a premium price for a case of Nestlés Eco-Shape water bottles? Drinking ‘sustainably sourced’ coffee from McDonald’s McCafé menu? Probably not.”

Maybe not. Corporate Accountability states that “Nestlé and other transnational corporations have turned Earth Day into a greenwashing bonanza. It’s more than ironic, given how these very same corporations have long lobbied against the environmental protections created after the first Earth Day in 1970. Not to mention how many have been cheering as the [Trump] administration dismantles those protections.”

Written by

My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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