EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Greenwashing and The 3 Types of Lies


Optional Viewing/Reading

Watch the video below and see if you pick up on any rhetorical strategies.

BP ad
Click Here for text alternative to BP ad

The BP ad begins by showing four babies in a car driving down a road. The baby driving looks at the gas gauge and realizes that the gas tank is basically empty. The babies then look for a gas station, but the first two that they pass seem evil and/or broken down. Suddenly, the baby driving points and they see a BP gas station where everything is happy. It then shows "gas stations, a little better, baby" on the screen followed by the BP logo as the commercial ends.

Credit: British Petroleum

So, what did you find?


This commercial is filled with pathos. The babies (are some children?) are meant to evoke happiness/warmth/etc. The song is jaunty and catchy - I don't know about you, but I actually like it. The imagery (other than the "bad" gas stations) is colored with pastels, giving it a very soft look. The BP gas pump is whistling(!) and the kids are smiling after they go to the BP station. There is a small attempt at humor at the end (the "baby" part of "gas stations, a little better, baby"). All of this is pathos.


The only thing I could detect was at the end when BP put its brand on the screen "Beyond Petroleum." This is a weak attempt at establishing credibility, and I imagine not purposeful. They do that at the end of every commercial. There is no scientific information or even scientific-sounding information. No people in lab coats or statistics cited. Really, very little in the way of ethos.


There is not much in the way of logos either. The story does have a logical progression - happy kids run out of gas, pass gas stations with inferior gas, kids refuse the "bad" gas, then find a BP station and end up happy and high-fiving. I know, this story is ridiculous on its face, but it does tell a story with some logic to the structure. BP is also saying that their gas is better, or at least a little better. You could also say that showing wind turbines at the end of the commercial is an attempt to associate renewable energy with BP, so perhaps the audience might think that BP supports wind turbines. This is a bit of a logical leap but could be considered logos.

There are a number of rhetorical strategies being deployed in this commercial, which to be honest, is to be expected. Please note that this is not meant to single out BP - as noted earlier in this lesson, print and video advertising is rife with rhetoric, pathos in particular. But is there anything that does not quite "sit right" with you when watching the video? Does it feel like part of the story is missing? Anything odd about an oil company using so much green imagery?


Suggested Reading

This article provides a good introduction to what greenwashing is and how to spot it. Please read before continuing.

  • "Greenwashing" from Investopedia. Note the examples of greenwashing at the end of this article.
  • (Optional) "About Greenwashing." EnviroMedia Social Marketing.

Greenwashing can be thought of as:

  • "the use of marketing to portray an organization's products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not."
  • Greenwashing Index adds that it can also include "when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact."  

So, why would a company spend the time and money to convey a green image, and risk being viewed as insincere? As you might have guessed, it's good for business. Investopedia notes that: "The general idea behind greenwashing is to create a benefit by appearing to be a green company, whether that benefit comes in the form of a higher stock price, more customers or favored partnerships with green organizations." 

Being (or at least putting on the appearance of being) "green" or sustainable has become a very good marketing strategy. Think about all of the times you've seen the term "green" or "sustainable" associated with a product or process. It is happening in basically all sectors of the economy - food, energy, transportation, housing, business, cleaning products, events, sports stadiums, and even fashion. Business pursuing sustainability is not a bad thing. If we are going to achieve a sustainable future, the business community will have to be on board, if not leading the way. The problem is when a business is using sustainability more as a marketing ploy than a legitimate attempt at addressing sustainability.

So, how do you know if a company is making a legitimate attempt at addressing sustainability? In short: it's complicated. The folks in the Greenwashing Index offer some good suggestions on how to investigate claims (see the "How Do I Spot It?" section in the reading):

  • "If you see a green ad, take a look at the company as a whole. Can you easily find more information about their sustainable business practices on their website? Do they have a comprehensive environmental story? Is there believable information to substantiate the green claims you saw in the ad? If not, buyer beware."
  • "Google the company name plus the word 'environment' and see what pops up. This is far from scientific, but if consumers or environmental advocates have a beef with the company’s track record, something’s bound to pop up."
  • "'I know it when I see it.'...those are words to live by for the consumer and green marketing claims. If you spot a green ad, how does it strike your gut? Does it ring true and authentic, or is it obviously hype? Smart shoppers abound globally, and your own scrutiny of green marketing claims is one more item to throw into your shopping cart."

The best way to fight greenwashing is to become educated about sustainability and take the time to learn about companies.

Optional Reading/Video

The video below illustrates some facts about BP that could be found with a little research.

BP's History Revealed
Click Here for a text alternative to BP's history Revealed Video

This video is the same video as what was shown above, but with speech bubbles thrown in that give you some true facts about BP. The speech bubbles are transcribed here. In 1991 BP was cited as the most polluting company in the U.S. So by 1997 we decided to re-brand our name to Beyond Petroleum. But in 1999 we got caught for illegally burning gases and were fined 1.7 million dollars in addition to the 22 million dollars we already owed for the last 6 years. So in 2000, we designed a green and leafy Helios Logo! But we then got fined another 10 million dollars by the EPA for more polluting that year. Therefore, we claimed that we would invest 8 billion dollars in alternative energy pursuits through 2015. This sounded great...as long as we didn't mention grossing over 248 billion dollars a year. We got away with pledging less than 4 percent of an annual budget! And after spending another $200 million on our green PR campaign, the public bought it. We even bought-err- I mean, GOT support from the National Wildlife Federation. So in 2005 we made it into Mother Jones' Top 10 Worst corporations for a pipeline burst in Alaska, and don't forget about the other explosion at a Texas refinery killing 15 and wounding over 100. Yeah, we got fined again in 2009 for another 87 million dollars for failing to correct these safety hazards even after the accidents. We made up for the fines by cutting investments in renewable energy by 30 percent in 2009. Then in April 2010, our green image busted another leak, which was a big one, all over the Gulf of Mexico! Their decades of green cosmetics, greed, and noncompliance precipitated an unfathomable consequence, and we are only one oil company! The video then shows the BP logo leaking oil all over itself.

Credit: Bret Malley

Even though BP is not directly making any claims other than being "a little better," the rhetorical strategies outlined above are used to indicate the company's "green-ness." To be fair, BP has been one of the more aggressive oil companies in regards to renewables. According to Bloomberg Business, they achieved their goal of investing $8 billion in renewables between 2005 and 2015. They heavily invested in wind farms, though they have recently put many of them up for sale. They had a solar division for decades, and only recently shut it down. They are still fairly heavily invested in biofuels. Whether or not it's wise for BP to invest in renewable energy may be debatable, but the point is that renewables are a tiny sliver of their business, so focusing marketing on that aspect is greenwashing.

You may be thinking "What are they supposed to do - advertise the negative climate change implications of their business?" That would be a fair question. But it is possible to be a little more reasonable in the message the company sends. If they oversell their "greenness," it is greenwashing.

Optional Reading

This article from the Worldwatch Institute provides some examples of greenwashing, and some tips for how to avoid it.

Greenwashing is not only used by energy companies. Watch the ad below and see if you can pick up on any rhetorical strategies, and think about whether or not it is greenwashing (hint: think about what you know of the electricity industry from Lesson 1).

Nissan Leaf: Polar Bear Commercial
Click here for a text alternative to Nissan Leaf: Polar Bear commercial
This commercial shows a Polar Bear traveling to different locations until he finds a guy with a Nissan Leaf in his driveway, and the Polar Bear gives the man a hug.
Credit: Bold Ride

Okay, one more example. Once again, keep an eye out for rhetorical strategies.

Click Here for Transcript of Greenwashing video

(casually dressed man) As global warming becomes more of a concern, all of us in the petroleum industry are doing what we can to show that we care about the environment. Many of us have changed our logos from something like this (traditional logo) to this — see it looks like a flower.

(casually dressed woman) And we in the plastics industry are doing our part by putting the word recyclable on all of our products. Where to recycle, how to recycle, or what to recycle it into haven't been thought of yet, but we're spending millions researching where on our product the recycle logo is the most visible.

(man) And I'm wearing a sweater instead of a suit so I must love nature. And look where I'm standing; isn't it beautiful. Now, when you think of oil refineries, hopefully, you'll think of this.

(woman) We're doing our part to look environmental, but we need you to meet us halfway and believe we're environmental even when we lobby against pollution restrictions like the Kyoto Accord.

(man) So when you hear about an oil spill that's killing thousands of birds or an oil spill that's destroying marine life or any oil-related disaster, think of deer laying in a field (additional inaudible comment).

(woman) Look! Dolphins! The more you think about these things, the less you're thinking about the island of plastic garbage in the middle of the Pacific that's twice the size of Texas.

(man) Because a clean ocean is a great photo opportunity for...

(man and woman together) the children.

(another man's voice) This message from the Canadian resource association of petroleum and plastic producers. You can't spell greenwashing without green.

Credit: bojo50

You probably figured out that this last one is a parody (a pretty funny one, if you ask me). But it actually makes some really good points by bringing light to the touchstones that many advertisers put in their commercials to persuade you. Again, this is not meant to single out the petroleum and plastic industries, as these techniques are used by many companies. But it is the only parody video I know of.

Again, the best way to detect greenwashing is to learn as much as possible about sustainability and to research companies' claims. The best way to reduce the incidence of greenwashing is for consumers to push back against companies that do it. By "voting with your dollars" you hurt profits, which is a good way to get a company's attention.

Why Should We Care?

Hopefully, it's pretty clear what greenwashing is, and how to spot it. But why does it matter? Of course, advertisers are not telling us the whole truth, and are just trying to get us to buy their products. After all, that is literally their job (the part about getting us to buy their stuff is, anyway). The main problem with greenwashing is that it can trick people into doing things that they think is promoting sustainability, but it is actually not, or worse - it is promoting things that are bad for sustainability

Most often, the best way to address sustainability is to not buy anything at all. But given that it's nearly impossible to go through life without buying things and that consumer spending constitutes somewhere around 70% of U.S. GDP, making wise consumer choices is important. Greenwashing makes this much more difficult.

Check Your Understanding

Why would a company risk being viewed as one that greenwashes?

Click for answer.
There could be many reasons, but usually, it is so they can make money. Items that are perceived as sustainable often charge more money (e.g., organic produce), but also are attractive to many consumers. It can also increase the general sustainable perception of the company, which some investors like (e.g., it can increase a company's or brand's q-score.)

The Three Types of Lies

Hopefully, by now you see that there are a number of rhetorical strategies available to help convince people of an argument. Though this can be seen as manipulative in many cases, often times it does not involve actual lying. But what is lying, exactly? Merriam Webster's online dictionary provides two relevant definitions of a lie:

lie (intransitive verb)
  1. to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive
  2. to create a false or misleading impression.

Seems pretty cut-and-dry, but for the purposes of this lesson, it is helpful to know that there are different types of lies. The three most commonly referred to are lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence, aka character lies. The reading below neatly summarizes these and provides some examples.

Optional Reading

These three types of lies are well-known, and there are many readings that illustrate them. This one from Vanessa Van Edwards is very concise and offers a number of examples. I suggest going through the examples she provides to test your understanding.

The three types of lies are as follows, as described in the reading above:

  • Lies of commission: "If someone tells you something that is not a fact then we call this a lie of commission. This type of lie is telling someone something that is simply not true."
  • Lies of omission: "Another type of lie is one where you leave out an important part of information, hence the name lie of omission. In this lie, someone omits an important detail from a statement. These are nasty lies because they’re harder to spot and take less effort from the person who is lying."
  • Character lie, aka lie of influence: "Sometimes people will tell you something completely unrelated to the truth to cover up a lie. This is what we call a character lie or a lie of influence. These lies are meant to make you believe the liar or to make the liar seem like such a great person that they are unlikely to be suspected of lying."

Now that you have a good idea of what each of these three types of lies entails, take a second to think about which type of lie fits which of Webster's definitions above.

Click here for lies of commission
The first definition matches perfectly with lies of commission, which entails making a flat-out untrue statement.
Click here for lies of omission
Lies of omission fit the second definition. Omissions are not necessarily untrue, but they are misleading.
Click here for character lies/lies of influence
Character lies fit the second definition as well. Character lies are not necessarily untrue either, but they do attempt to create a false or misleading impression.