What is greenwashing?

When an organization is greenwashing, they are spreading false or misleading information to present themselves as more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Greenwashing makes it hard for consumers to shop for environmentally friendly alternatives.

In Canada, greenwashing is far too common. A study of 100 so-called “green” products on the Canadian markets found that 94% had been greenwashed.   


How can you spot greenwashing?

If over nine out of ten “green” products aren’t actually that green, it can feel almost impossible to find the ones that are. Thankfully, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to spot greenwashing:

    • Watch out for vague terms like green, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Does the company tell you how the product has earned that title?
    • Be wary of advertisements or branding that make a product feel environmentally friendly, especially if you can’t say why. This might be executional greenwashing, a strategy where companies use images and sounds that remind you of nature without making any promises to protect it.
    • Opt for transparency. If a product claims to have 33% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the industry standard, does the company have the data or valid third-party certification to prove it?
    • Think about the big picture. Should a $1 million dollar investment in a solar farm distract you from the billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel extraction? Is that fuel-efficient SUV really an environmentally friendly way to get around?

What are some examples of greenwashing?

Examples of greenwashing aren’t hard to find. Here are a few shocking attempts at green(washed) advertising:

In this textbook example of greenwashing, dolphins and seals applaud DuPont’s new double-hulled oil tankers – while DuPont held the title of largest corporate polluter in the United States.

A campaign for the 2013 Mazda CX-5 had the Lorax speaking for the SUVs. The car was even granted the “Truffula Tree Seal of Approval” for its fuel efficiency. As if the choice to have the Lorax support an SUV driving down a road that cuts through his beloved forest wasn’t questionable enough, promoting any type of combustion engine as environmentally friendly will only slow the shift to long-term solutions.

Procter & Gamble have put a lot of money into advertisements like this one, where oil-covered animals are cleaned with Dawn Dish Soap and released back onto the shore. Their packaging almost always features a fluffy duckling or the promise that “Dawn helps save wildlife.” Don’t let that fool you. The Environmental Working Group gives Dawn a grade of D for its poor disclosure and its environmental risks. Their soap contains methylisothiazolinone, which is highly toxic to aquatic life and definitely doesn’t match up with their pro-wildlife image.

How does greenwashing affect the energy industry?

Ironically, some of the planet’s biggest polluters are also its biggest greenwashers. This is especially obvious in the energy industry.

    • In 2000, oil giant British Petroleum (BP) rebranded as “Beyond Petroleum” and advertised itself as the “environmentally friendly” option for gassing up your car. Their “Helios House,” a gas station with solar panels, greenery, and energy efficient bathrooms, was a key part of this rebrand. Drivers would apparently go out of their ways to fill up at this “green” gas station. However, over the same time that BP was pushing their environment-forward image, their negligence and cost-cutting strategies were setting the stage for the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
    • After BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, Chevron tried to take the top spot for greenest (or most greenwashed) oil company. The company launched their “We Agree” campaign, which highlighted people’s concerns with the oil industry. Chevron agreed with all of them and claimed to be the solution to their problems. As these commercials aired, though, Chevron was appealing an $18 billion lawsuit for their environmental damages to the Amazon Rainforest.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Most hydroelectric reservoirs emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb. They are often sources of methane, too, a greenhouse gas with twenty-five times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Greenhouse gas emission rate vary a lot between reservoirs. Typically, the closer a hydroelectric dam is to the equator, the bigger its carbon footprint. Some even have larger carbon footprints than a gas plant with the same production rate.

Toxic Algae Blooms

Nutrients can accumulate in hydropower reservoirs, leading to imbalances that cause cyanobacterial blooms. Cyanobacterial blooms are toxic to wildlife, and they steal sunlight from the primary producers that supply aquatic ecosystems with food and oxygen.

Environmental Injustices and the Violation of Human Rights

Dams create upstream reservoirs and alter downstream flows, causing the loss of land and livelihoods. These impacts often fall on Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

How does greenwashing affect the Canadian hydroelectricity industry?

Greenwashing is, unfortunately, pretty common when it comes to Canadian hydropower. Most of our electricity is delivered by crown corporations, organizations that lie somewhere between government and private industry. Provincial governments are supposed to supervise their crown corporations, but some suggest that they’re too intertwined to be independent regulators. This means that provincial leaders will often fail to hold our providers accountable for their claims and promises.

For example, Manitoba Hydro has promised an increase in fish populations after every one of their major projects. The northern Indigenous communities experiencing the impacts of these projects know that these promises haven’t been met. Every time Manitoba Hydro has flooded a project, the fish population has decreased.

Similar promises were made in British Columbia. For its Site C Project, BC Hydro said that after the reservoir was flooded, the number of fish would increase or stay the same. While this could technically be expected, they minimized the fact that the volume of water would also increase, decreasing the density of fish and making them harder to catch. Certain species would also respond differently to the flooding. Brook trout, a species traditionally relied upon by First Nations, were actually expected to decline in number. Still, hydroelectric utilities promised Indigenous communities environmental benefits while decimating an important traditional food source.

If these environmental impacts are recognized, they’re often framed as an unavoidable side-effect of our low-carbon hydropower. They’re a price that (certain) Canadians have to pay for our green energy future – a price that’s justified by our emissions-free electricity.

The reality is that hydropower is not emissions-free. In some areas, it’s not even close. In a recent study, the Environmental Defense Fund found that, of the nearly 1,500 hydropower plants that they examined, the electricity from over 100 of them was more carbon intensive (g CO2e/kWh) than electricity from fossil fuels.

A lot of these emissions come from hydropower reservoirs. These reservoirs store water when demand for electricity is low, and they release water when it’s high. That means that their water levels can vary much more than those of regular lakes, leading to increased shoreline erosion. When vegetation falls from the eroding shore into the water, it decomposes. This releases carbon dioxide and, sometimes, methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas.

Canadian hydroelectricity providers say that this isn’t a problem in our colder climate, and that emissions from reservoirs are low. However, they aren’t exactly transparent about what “low” means. Hydro-Quebec, for example, claims that over their lifecycle, its hydroelectric dams emit an average of 17 g CO2e/kWh. Independent studies have found this number to be at least ten times higher. One facility even had higher emissions than an equivalent coal-fired power plant.

Pushing forward projects that destroy Indigenous land under the false pretense of “low-carbon” power is unacceptable. Canada’s electrical utilities need to be held accountable for their greenwashing.

If you want to find out what this means for your province, click on your electrical utility and read about the reality behind the greenwash.