“Greenwashing has been popularized as a symbolic reversal of the long-standing public relations practices of corporations to appear legitimately environmentally ‘friendly,’ ‘responsible,’ ‘sustainable,’ or just ‘green’” (Kendall 2008).
1. BP and the Environment
Founded in 1909, British Petroleum celebrated its 100th birthday back in 2008. It is the world’s third-largest Oil and Gas Company and has a presence in over 80 countries. For the financial year ended December 2010, the company reported total sales of $297 billion (Mintel 2011).
1.1 The Oil Spill Saga
BP’s environmentally friendly brand has been tested by damaging incidents in recent years, including a Texas refinery blast and an Alaska pipeline spill (Bloomberg Businessweek 2010). But, in April 2010, the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, costing 11 lives, and leaking millions of gallons of oil into the sea. The saga has cost the oil giant billions of pounds in clean-up costs and compensation (Channel 4 News 2011). Since the accident, BP’s stock market value has declined by approximately $25 billion (Bloomberg Bussinessweek 2010) and in a report from Channel 4 News in 2010; Barack Obama likened the BP oil spill to 9/11. “In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”
The oil spill has been extensively destructive to BP due to the justifiable accusations of negligent behaviour. BP, Halliburton and Transocean were the three key companies implicated with the Macondo well, and the US Presidential Commission said; “Many of the decisions made increased the risk of the Macondo blow-out clearly saved those companies significant time. BP did not have adequate controls in place to ensure that key decisions in the months leading up to the blow-out were safe or sound” (Channel 4 News 2011). Using the already unpopular Tony Heyward as a spokesman to apologise was a further mistake. Met by immediate cynicism from consumers, the message only received further negativity. BP struggled to take the right course of action. Their inability to be honest, transparent, and sincerely apologetic, was ultimately their downfall (Blair and Hitchcock 2001).
BP attempted to put a figure on the rate of oil spewing into the ocean claiming the leak was only 5,000 barrels a day (The Guardian 2010). However, it was later revealed that the size of the oil was 20 times its public estimate, and in fact the rate could reach 100,000 barrels a day. In a statement in The Guardian (2010), Ed Markey, head of the House sub-committee on energy and the environment said; “This document raises very troubling questions about what BP knew and when they knew it. It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill.” Their disregard only provides further credibility to their lack of commitment to the wellbeing of the environment. Lord John Brown (2003), retired group chief executive of BP said, “[the oil industry] is one of the world’s most successful corporations but it does not have a single objective”. It could therefore be argued that in an industry with such a narrow corporate vision, the most important aims for BP are to deliver good returns to its shareholders and investors.
1.2 Corporate Social Responsibility
In BP’s Sustainability Report (2012) they state; “Our approach to sustainability covers issues relating to governance and risk management, safety, the environment, the energy future and our local and global socio-economic impact.” This claim gives the impression that BP disregards the ongoing problems in the Gulf of Mexico and is guilty of 3 of Futerra’s 10 signs of greenwash; ‘no proof’, ‘irrelevant claims’ and ‘out-right lying’ (Futerra Sustainability Communications 2011). “Any attempts to sway public conception of environmental problems in order to obscure the interests of specific strategic alliances are greenwashing” (Kendall 2008). It therefore seems to be obscure that they would release such a statement knowing the extent of environmental damage caused in recent years. BP, however, operate in a society where environmentalism is becoming increasingly popular. “Most western markets have been affected by green consumer behaviour… such as changing buying habits of environmentally oriented consumers and boycotting behaviour that resulted from media reporting and pressure group activity (Wagner 1997).
The oil industry will to continue to battle with negative associations. What is evident in modern society is that energy is a necessity. Therefore oil is critical in the way we live our daily lives. Although BP has made some profound mistakes, “the [oil industry] is widely considered dirty and arrogant, populated by companies that need to be huge in scale to compete rather than human-sized. They are therefore seen as frightening, apparently all-powerful, dealing in huge numbers and seemingly unaccountable” (Brown 2003). With the culture of environmentalism becoming more mainstream, companies like BP need to be transparent to prove their CSR statements are truthful. “Brand fundamentals, such as trust, honesty, and quality, still count with consumers… it’s not enough to promise, you have to deliver” (Wade 2009). BP have had a public relations backlash but are setting new initiates to improve their operations saying; “We are working hard to restore trust in our ability to operate safely and responsibly wherever we do business” (BP Sustainability 2012).
2. Recent Communications
2.1 Greenwashing for individual gain
Last week, BP called on its contractor Halliburton to pay all costs and expenses it incurred to clean up the oil spill (The Guardian 2012). BP has spent $14bn in response to the spill and set aside $20bn for economic claims and restoration work (BP Sustainability 2012). What appeared to be an admirable effort from BP was tarnished when figures were released that the oil giant had more than tripled its expenditure on advertising following the oil spill. According to CNN Money (2010), “BP spent over $93 million on corporate advertising, which is three times the amount that the company spent on ads during the same period last year.” Scott Dean, BP’s general manager in press relations said; “Our objective has been to create informational advertising to assure people that we will meet our commitment.” However, Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, argued this kind of approach was “unsurprising” and they are giving consumers want they want to hear” (Financial Times et al 2010). With huge amounts of money still to be paid in compensation, BP’s increased advertising spend is completely unjustified. This behaviour demonstrates BP’s desire to greenwash by spending more money on major branding and communications in the hope of increasing the green perceptions of their brand. “Energy is perceived as a much greener industry than travel in the United Kingdom, this is indicative of the significant environmental brand work done by BP and Shell” (Wade 2009).
A portion of the increased ad spend was used to utilise internet advertising (Wall Street Journal et al 2010). This was unsurprising considering BP had faced widespread criticism which has been particularly vociferous on social media. A Facebook group called ‘Boycott BP’ has recruited nearly 800,000 members since its launch and encourages consumers to avoid all BP petrol stations and brands (Boycott BP 2012). As well as committing to a variety of initiatives to quell the oil leak, BP had to find a way to combat the constant negative conversation online, and created ‘The Deepwater Horizon Response’ account on Twitter. With 5,700 followers, this has formed a key part of BP’s efforts to ensure news about its latest activities were easily accessible (Financial Times et al 2010). David Nicholas, a BP spokesman said; “we want to ensure that we can get out information about the response to this incident and spill as rapidly and widely as possible… Twitter is a clearly popular medium that can complement other, more traditional, communication efforts.”
These communication channels have been set up to aid BP’s public relations, but action speaks louder than words. The investment could have been used to support their environmental action. BP provides further evidence of greenwashing by running search ads on Google linked to the area of its website hosting the live video footage of its attempt to quell the leaking well on its YouTube channel (Financial Times et al 2010) which shows false images of an already oil free coast line.
BP are “presenting emotional appeals enhancing the organisations image by emphasising their positive actions, no matter how trivial, and downplaying any negative aspects, no matter how significant” (Kendall 2008).
2.2 ‘Beyond Petroleum’
Ogilvy and Mather created BP’s campaign ‘Beyond Petroleum’ along with their new logo, the ‘Helios’. The re-branding was a means of “expressing BP’s desire to be different and distinctive, a constructive, positive force, and a new company in an old industry” (Brown 2003). However, John Grant (2007. P. 85) argues that the BP logo is, “Imagewashing… designed to confer associations without substance.” Kendall (2008) says greenwashing often takes a propagandistic approach and “rather than substantially changing business practices so as to earn a better reputation, firms turn to PR professionals to create one for them.” Greenpeace quickly picked up on the logos false representation and created a print campaign asking consumers to take action by designing a more fitting logo.
Similarly, many of BP’s ads in previous years had imagery that spoke of the company’s commitment to the environment. For example, the TV advertisement with the slogan saying BP is making ‘Gas stations, a little better, baby’. BP’s advertisements have often been targeted by Greenpeace and it was not long until BP was dubbed, “Burning Planet” by Greenpeace (Grant 2007. P. 85). With Greenpeace now campaigning against them, BP took a stand, and remained committed to their message. “But ‘Beyond Petroleum’, perhaps the most famous example of greenwashing, was still a disaster. It back fired, became a focus of criticism, not support” (Grant 2007. P. 84). The ‘Beyond Petroleum’ tagline was ambiguous, and without considerable environmental action, lost credibility. “By simply blocking holes in pipelines, BP was able to make huge strides in the 1990s, beating its targets on reducing carbon emissions” (Grant 2007. P. 84). This effort was not profound enough for BP to make environmentalism the foundation of their communications strategy and brand their ads so heavily with ‘greenness’. Grant (2007) believes BP should have said, “We’re decades away from really getting beyond petroleum, but at least ‘we’re trying’ would have been fine.”
2.3 BP Target Neutral
Target Neutral is a not-for-profit initiative funded by BP since 2006. Offering to neutralise consumer’s emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects, BP says “Carbon offsetting is a good option for these remaining CO2 emissions. Not only does it help the environment directly, but it funds investment in sustainable alternative technologies” (BP Target Neutral 2012). Grant (2007) disagrees with this statement, “Quite a few concerns have been raised about offsetting recently; that it is an inefficient approach… Carbon offsetting is actually a form of cause-related marketing; a small proportion of the purchase price is used to do some good work.” In July 2008, BP became the sixth company to partner the 2012 Olympic Games and activists are voicing their concerns over the sponsorship. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that a company like BP would be making such a big effort to portray itself as a ‘good corporate citizen’ at a time when it is embroiled in so many environmental and human rights controversies around the world” (The Ecologist 2011).
BP have capitalised on the Olympic opportunity to diversify their Target Neutral initiative, offering to offset peoples travel during the Games. The Olympics has become a bandwagon event with the prospect of building positive brand associations (Grant 2007). “[BP] is banking on its sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics to rebuild a corporate image bruised by a recent series of disastrous accidents” (Mintel 2011). It could be argued that BP had become desperate and not only jumped on the Olympic bandwagon, but the offsetting one too. “Biofuels and carbon offsetting were both greeted enthusiastically, but are now controversial, contested and frowned upon” (Grant 2007). The deal is estimated to be in excess of £60 million, and makes BP the event’s official oil and gas partner, responsible for providing fuelling facilities for vehicles used in the Games (Mintel 2011).
Six London 2012 athletes are fronting BP’s Target Neutral programme including World Heptathlon Champion, Jessica Ennis seen demonstrating top tips for reducing your carbon footprint during London 2012. BP chief executive Tony Hayward said; “We want to support this momentous event, which will also provide a unique opportunity to engage with our own large UK and global workforce, the millions of customers we serve each day, and our existing partners in the arts, education and cultural arena” (Mintel 2008). Ironically, the group ‘Art Not Oil’ has created a BP-free gallery where people can submit artwork to contest the sponsorship. Art Not Oil say they have “campaigned against Big Oil cultural sponsorship since 2004 and creates work that explores the damage that companies like BP and Shell are doing to the planet” (Art Not Oil 2012). Much like the increased ad spend, it seems BP might have put their investment to better use in the ongoing clean up in the Gulf of Mexico. However, Target Neutral’ is a not-for-profit initiative funded by BP, and one goes towards helping consumers reduce their travel carbon footprint. It is a worthy step in a direction that may be small, but one that can have a positive impact on the environment.
“Greenwashing represents an acknowledgement of the power of symbolic manipulation” (Kendall 2008). The ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign allowed an opening for dispute against BP’s green credentials. The ‘Helios’ logo demonstrates how BP has used a propagandistic image symbolising ‘greenness’, a misrepresentation of their genuine impact on the environment. With the mainstreaming of environmental consumerism (Wade 2009), brands must prove their commitment. “Some companies put forward slogans and claims regarding the environmental friendliness of a product without backing them up by the actual greening of manufacturing processes” (Wagner 1997).
The only time we see BP being more transparent in their communications, is in a print campaign where they explaining the improved greening of their manufacturing processes, ending by saying, “It’s a start”.
Due to the nature of its business, BP will continue to fight negative associations with its brand. Also, the infrequency of this transparency in recent communications mean, arguments will often be aimed toward the oil giant’s objective being to enhance the corporations brand image for monetary gain. “BP and Shell get so much flack, not because they are worse than other oil companies, but because they suggest they are better” (Grant 2007. P. 83).
BP’s public relations during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were catastrophic and will trouble them for years to come. BP failed to be honest and seem genuinely apologetic; they did not effectively work with those now working against them. “Capitulate and cave into the pressure taking whatever businesses costs and disbenefits are incurred… be pro-active” (Blair and Hitchcock 2001).
Before the oil giant can boast environmentally friendly claims, they must do something more constructive in line with the environmental principles they preach. Oil is an industry indispensible to modern society and consumers are savvy to the damage caused by fossil fuels. The greenwashing committed by BP has been evident. Although BP does uphold a legitimate commitment to the environment, in future they must be they must show how they are improving their processes, and extending commitments, without greenwashing the fact that those processes are still harmful to our environment. With honesty, perhaps BP can begin to restore trust in their ability to operate safely and responsibly wherever they do business (BP Sustainability 2012). “Trust is the gateway to aspiration. This is true for individuals and institutions of every sort. Once you have trust, and know how to sustain it, there is no limit to the aspiration” (Brown 2003).