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The ‘greenwashing’ effect

by Savanna Craig March 22, 2016
The ‘greenwashing’ effect

JMSB professors research TransCanada’s tactics to market themselves green

As a result of great concern for the future of our environment, many companies that sell unsustainable products or propose projects that are harmful to the environment have changed the way in which they market their products. A tactic companies use is greenwashing—a term Ronald Ferguson, a professor of management at John Molson School of Business (JMSB), defines as companies repairing public perception of their brand by marketing their products or proposals as green.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

Ferguson, alongside marketing professor Michèle Paulin at JMSB, discussed the greenwashing trend during a joint presentation called “Millennials’ Perception of Greenwashing: Social Media and the Energy East Pipeline” at the MB building on March 18. This was organized by the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise.

Research by Ferguson and Paulin found that a large proportion of millennials are better at noticing greenwashing used by companies, compared to other generations.

“Millennials are more educated than other generations,” Paulin said. She said that millennials face problems that previous generations did not face, therefore they are more aware of issues of social and environmental concern.

Paulin said previous generations were more corporate-minded, however she doesn’t want to generalize over entire generations. She said that although many millennials are able to resist greenwashing and are more environmentally conscious than others, there are still cases where members of other generations prove better at this than some millennials themselves.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

A prime example of a company creating worry for Canada’s environment is TransCanada, according to Paulin and Ferguson. The company proposed multiple pipeline projects, which would connect oil from Alberta and distribute it to the East Coast and West Coast of Canada, as well as the United States. The Energy East pipeline was planned to run through Montreal—which Mayor Denis Coderre spoke out against in January. The Keystone XL pipeline, planned to run across the border to distribute to the oil to the U.S., was rejected by President Barack Obama.

On their website, TransCanada insists that in the event of a spill, diluted bitumen, a type of oil, would not sink to the bottom of a body of water. However, Ferguson said in the case of the Kalamazoo River oil spill, diluted bitumen did just that and sunk to the bottom of the river. Five years later, the clean-up is still not complete.

Currently, the Alberta tar sands are visible from space, which is not the only unappealing result of the oil sands. According to TransCanada’s website in 2011, the company was responsible for 38 oil spills, with a total of 497 litres being released into the environment. In 2013, TransCanada was also responsible for 27 more oil spills—lower than 2011, but spilling an alarming amount of oil, a total of 3,104 litres. In addition, in 2013, TransCanada was responsible for 8 oil spills in the U.S., accumulating to a total of 65,753 litres.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

TransCanada has released advertisements that present the company as environmentally friendly, which Ferguson and Paulin say is a way to market themselves positively to the public. The company has done so by adding visuals of natural landscapes and greenery to implement an environmental aspect to their marketing scheme. TransCanada has tried to appease those with environmental concerns by stating they care for the environment and are planning to work with First Nations, environmentalists and governments on their website. Along with this, the company said they plan to work with these groups to create strategies to use during construction in order to protect the land and animals. However, in recent media reports, TransCanada has run into issues with First Nations communities by wanting to build pipelines through their land. TransCanada has also upset environmentalists due to neglect following oil spills, continuing to contaminate and destroy the land where the pipes have burst, according to Ferguson and Paulin’s research.

TransCanada is somewhat successful in greenwashing the pipelines, according to Paulin and Ferguson. However, they found that many millennials are aware of greenwashing attempted through advertisements.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

JMSB professors Ferguson and Paulin present their research in JMSB. Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

TransCanada markets itself as being environmentally responsible, explaining on their website that they plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions, however stating that “most of these emissions result from the combustion of natural gas used as a fuel source by our natural gas pipeline system.”

Paulin said that if a company has a long-term view of things, it cannot be moved by short-term considerations of corporate measures and profitability. Paulin said that if business schools had a more balanced education, as opposed to focusing on corporate benefit, businesses would have a better range of values and would not need to greenwash. “We’ve got to clean our mindset,” Paulin said. “At the moment, we’re all junkies. Technology has revolutionized the way we do things, but we have not changed our mindset.”

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