An ignoble first for Chevron, goliath of greenwashing
Josh Eisenfeld of Earthworks, one of the three groups filing an FTC complaint against Chevron, explains what the agency can do to stop Big Oil from hoodwinking consumers.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Like other Big Oil companies, Chevron has been sued in a growing number of states for lying about and misrepresenting the role its products play in causing climate change. But after last week, Chevron can claim a dubious new honor: it’s now the first of its Big Oil peers to be the subject of a complaint with the federal agency tasked with protecting consumers from deceptive business practices.
Last week, Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that charges Chevron with misleading consumers through greenwashing — i.e., advertising themselves as a solution to the climate crisis they are actively causing. The FTC complaint is the first ever to be filed against a fossil fuel company, and signals yet another pressure point in the movement to hold Big Oil accountable.
While climate damages and fraud lawsuits seek to hold Chevron accountable under state and common law, the FTC complaint aims to show that Chevron is violating a specific set of rules called the Green Guides, which regulate environmental claims in marketing and advertising.
I spoke with Josh Eisenfeld, Corporate Accountability Communications Campaigner at Earthworks, one of three groups spearheading the complaint. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Where is the line between dangerously false marketing and just exaggerating in order to sell a product?
I think if your product is something that is known to kill people, that would be the red flag of “we need to make sure that this product is being sold in a responsible way, if it’s being sold at all.” You could liken it to the way that there was a mass crackdown on tobacco advertisements once the science was clear that it would kill people and would continue to do so unless the advertising and marketing around it were restricted. You look first at the product itself and then how it’s being talked about.
Anecdotally, if Chevron was spending half of its money on low carbon energy and half of its advertisements were about low carbon energy, that would be completely fair. But that’s not the case. They’re trying to paint the image that they’re a clean company. But between 2010 and 2018, only 0.2 percent of Chevron’s total capital expenditures were spent on low-carbon energy products.
What are some of the top examples of how Chevron has used marketing to mislead consumers?
There have been a lot of tweets, social media posts, and paid advertisements saying that Chevron is committed to reducing their emissions intensities. In the same advertisement, they make a statement about how they are fighting climate change. That paints a picture to the consumer that Chevron is reducing emissions. But reducing emissions intensity does not mean reducing overall emissions — it means reducing emissions per barrel of oil or unit of gas. If they extract more product than they ever have, which Chevron has indicated that it might, the overall amount of emissions that they are polluting could actually grow. This is a bait and switch tactic that a lot of fossil fuel companies are using, but that Chevron uses very often.
Chevron has advertised that the company is good for the climate or is doing things to help the climate. They talk about that in relation to their reliance on new biogas. Biogas is really just gas captured from factory farms. Chevron’s biodigesters rely in large part on raising animals in high concentrations, which has adverse impacts on human and environmental health. Throwing garbage all over the floor and picking up just a few pieces of it doesn’t mean you’re good for the environment.
Why does it matter if Chevron lies about its business — what are the downstream consequences of misleading consumers?
First of all, it matters because if people don’t understand the costs of the decisions that they make, then they can’t make the right decisions. We have a moment here in history where, in our consumer-based economy, consumers want to be the change that we need. And rather than stepping up and delivering on that want in an honest way, companies like Chevron are exploiting that want. Consumers who are everyday people working 40+ hours a week or more don’t have the time to do a search into whether Chevron is or isn’t doing the things they say they do. They trust that the FTC and agencies like it would make sure that anything they say in their advertisements is substantiated.
So it’s really important that what is said to a consumer is honest and true, because the downstream effect can be that not only do we not get the change that we want, but it perpetuates the harm that we’re trying to reduce. As a whole, the fossil fuel industry has a well-documented history of sowing misinformation and doubt around scientific consensus on climate in order to continue getting away with peddling climate-polluting products. This history, as well as the ongoing catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis, demonstrate the importance of holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for greenwashing tactics.
Why Chevron? I know Exxon was accused of much of the same behavior after the release of its latest “climate plan” — did you also look at Exxon and other Big Oil companies, and could other complaints follow this one?
Chevron is the second largest polluting company in the world since 1965, behind only Saudi Aramco. On top of the pollution they have put into the atmosphere, they have some of the most egregious charges against them — the fight to get Chevron and Texaco to pay for the billions of gallons of contamination that they’ve put into the waterways of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the billions of dollars that they owe those Indigenous people that they still have yet to pay. Last month they spilled a large amount of oil into the San Francisco Bay. It is becoming clear that Chevron’s strategy is not to fix its problems, but to remind people about the little bit of “good” that they’re doing so they forget about the problems they’ve created.
That seemed to be a very dangerous tactic that needed to be stopped as soon as possible. The hope would be that other companies would be held accountable in the future as well.
What would happen if this complaint were successful?
The FTC can do a number of things — it's really up to their discretion. We are asking that they order Chevron remove the advertisements identified in our complaint, prohibit Chevron from making such misleading statements in the future, require Chevron to release a public corrective statement in all media in which the misleading statements were previously disseminated, and impose all other penalties as are just and proper according to the Green Guides.
It is entirely possible that by doing this they will strongly discourage any other fossil fuel company from making misleading statements in their advertising in the future. That would be a huge win for the American consumer.
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