Does Business Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is?
Commercial advertisements have always had one sole intention – to sell something. Yet, companies also use them to present a message. Whether it be to clean their reputation, to atone for wrongdoing, or to assign guilt to the consumer, they use adverts to steer the discourse surrounding their company in specific directions. With a rise in climate consciousness, advertisers have naturally begun to speak a more eco-positive language.
It is no secret that capitalist-driven consumption – propagated for years by catchy slogans and shiny ads – has fuelled Western society’s wastefulness. The idea that climate consciousness can be profitable and exploited makes green adverts seem tokenistic and insincere to some. These adverts, however, continue to work on the public, assuaging the concerns of many that their purchases are damaging the environment. Nonetheless, there is a growing feeling that adverts make a fool of consumers. But does this make a difference in terms of consumer choices?
One of the biggest contributors to wasteful, fast consumerism is Amazon, the American multinational e-commerce corporation that has grown exponentially over the last decades. Their latest ad to hit TV screens is an infomercial on their solar panel farms, which attempts to champion their progress in sustainability, and closes with their new eco-friendly tagline, ‘Every Day Better’. The advert does not attempt to sell or detail Amazon’s products or services – not that, in 2022, it particularly needs to. Instead, it is a back-patting exercise designed to tell us how great they are at sustainability. This type of advertisement serves no purpose other than to propagate a narrative concerning Amazon’s apparent position on sustainability.
This self-aggrandisement is painfully ironic when one considers Amazon withheld its carbon footprint data until as late as 2019. With the eventual – and long overdue – release of their environmental impact, they committed to certain pledges culminating in becoming net carbon neutral by 2040. So, should we celebrate this as progress? Well, no. In fact, Amazon’s sustainability report in 2020 revealed an increase of 19% in its absolute carbon emissions. The online shopping boom during COVID-19 lockdowns fuelled that increase even further, making their adverts seem even more disingenuous. As we move ever close to a climate crisis crunch point, global corporations continue to shout loudest – yet their actions do not match their words.
Now Amazon has reached a level of ubiquity where it no longer needs to actively sell its goods and services, it can use its advertisements to clean – or greenwash – its public image. It can present itself to the consumer as an ethical, environmentally friendly force for change. The reality is, of course, that they are not quite that, and that is where the problem resides.
While it is undeniably good that Amazon is taking steps to improve its environmental impact – if indeed this is true – the way in which they manipulate these actions to distort public perception is plainly immoral. Their increasing business operations inevitably reflect in their carbon footprint and resource use. Amazon’s 3.5 billion packages delivered annually emit a great deal of greenhouse gases. Their adverts attempt to mitigate the guilt that consumers may feel for supporting a business that is well-known for mistreating its workers and the environment.
Amazon is by no means the only guilty party in this climate activism exploitation. IKEA, the Swedish flat-packers whose low-price policy has encouraged wasteful consumerism, have also deemed climate-change activism a worthy sales tactic. One of their recent adverts features a robot – riskily resemblant of Disney’s WALL-E© – whose mission is to ‘Save the Planet’. Determined in his pursuit, the robot attempts to collect littered plastic bags, stop a truck en route to a pollution-ridden factory, and drop by drop, clean-up an oil spill. However, as his endeavour proves futile, he gives up and proceeds to head home to his meal-prepping, vegetable growing family.
Green adverts are a sales ploy, the benefit for the climate an afterthought, if a thought at all.
The advert seems weirdly contradictory. It suggests that it is fruitless to try to reverse the impact transnational corporations (TNCs) have had on the planet, which is a rather bleak message from the largest furniture retailer in the world. It does not blame TNCs though, or national governments, either – it simply suggests we should not bother. It presents corporations, that are a large part of the problem, as unchallengeable and unchangeable. It does, however, use the age-old trick that major corporations have deployed since BP released its personal carbon footprint calculator: in presenting corporate environmental damage as inevitable, IKEA suggests responsibility for the climate crisis lies with the individual consumer.
IKEA’s advert is a fun story (thanks to Disney), it engages the consumer, and it’s effective – for them. Despite that, it does little to further the discussion about climate change and what we can do to help prevent or alleviate some of its unfolding effects. The advert’s message about climate change is incoherent and indecisive; it shows that IKEA and its advert agency are simply using climate activism as a tokenistic gesture to appeal to its climate-conscious consumers without actual thought or care for the validity or profundity of its message. It is a sales ploy, the benefit for the climate an afterthought, if a thought at all. In simple terms, it is greenwashing at its most blatant. Greenwashing occurs when a corporation misleadingly presents their products or services as more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than they are.
The Swedish furnishers’ advert is joined by their recycling scheme where customers can take their old furniture back to IKEA in exchange for cash. Yet, sustainability has been the antithesis of IKEA’s strategy for years and so, can it really make a difference? Or will it work to make customers feel good when buying their products, and thus boost sales further?
If part of the problem is the credibility of a corporations’ climate advertisements, then how does the company gain legitimacy in its endeavours? In a bid to prove their credibility, some companies team up with charities and NGOs, which appear to validate their claims. For example, the beer brand Carlsberg have collaborated with WWF on several projects, the latest being their new ‘snap pack’ can holders. The advert depicts a turtle swimming in the ocean surrounded by plastic rings. One by one those rings pop and disappear, as the ad cuts to a customer buying Carlsberg cans with their new snap locks, where the cans are secured by glue and one plastic strip.
This is a campaign Carlsberg can, and should, be proud of; again, it is a step in the right direction. However, as the advert concludes the fine print reads, “all cans will be plastic free by December 2022,” which will be way over a year since the campaign launched. What is of more frustration is that almost every major beer company now has plastic free, sustainable packaging – most of which are cardboard and more user-friendly. Therefore, Carlsberg’s partnership with WWF is simply a ploy. It is not a pledge to make urgent change or to lead the market in revolutionary ideas; it simply pretends to make them seem more viable. Again, it comes back to making their advertising more effective and their product more sellable, not actually on how they can run their business more ecologically and sustainably.
It is very easy for Amazon to boast about their solar farms while their executive chairman launches rockets into space. It is very easy for IKEA to suggest multinational corporations are to blame, while being one themselves. And, it is very easy for Carlsberg to partner with WWF to appease their drinkers, while actually lagging behind the competition. Their adverts are simply a way to dodge culpability, and shift the blame and responsibility onto consumers and individuals. The actions of corporations rarely match their words, and until they do, their messages remain hollow, and we remain in crisis. Catchy slogans and shiny ads are still just that and, sadly, that only.
Phil Sadler holds an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Oxford. He currently works at Somerville College. Views expressed are of the author’s alone.
Artwork by Julia Panova.