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Greenwashing Strategy of Big Oil Companies - Yaren Öztürk


It has been revealed that Big Oil companies such as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies spent approximately 750 million dollars in 2021 on a marketing strategy that emphasizes sustainability goals and aims to draw a climate-friendly and green profile. Big oil and gas companies continue to sell oil and gas while building their marketing and advertising strategies on green claims such as clean energy and emission reductions. They allocate only 12% of their capital to low-carbon development. In late 2015, InfluenceMap, a London-based independent think tank that provides data analysis on how the business and financial sectors have influenced the climate crisis following the Paris Climate Agreement, published its latest report on how big business misleads the public. The comprehensive study of five oil and gas companies' use of public relations and communications tools found that 60% of company promotions included at least one statement emphasizing climate goals. In contrast, only one in ten of the five companies' investments, including some natural gas projects, have climate-related activities. Less than a quarter of promotional and advertising materials highlight companies' fossil fuel activities.


InfluenceMap researchers analyzed 3,421 public communication materials published by BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies in 2021, including articles and blog posts on corporate websites, press releases, reports, speeches, and company and CEO social media accounts, to understand how companies are sending a message to the public. The researchers did not analyze advertisements, as it was impossible to obtain complete data on any company's global advertising. While only 23 percent of the companies' posts promoted oil and gas, the most common theme was about embracing the transition to clean energy and reducing carbon emissions. Many oil companies have plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2050, but they do not include carbon emissions from the fossil fuels they sell. This makes the questionable to the credibility of the plan. On the other hand, the report shows that five major companies have adopted a path that aims to increase oil production in the next four years. On the contrary, the study shows that companies are making a great effort to distance themselves from their core product, oil, in their marketing strategies. The 'Who We Are' section of the official page of BP, one of the long-established oil companies, talks about redesigning energy for our world and people and the world's goals to reach a new zero. The word "oil" appears only twice at the bottom of the page. In a section called 'Our History,' it is mentioned at the bottom of the page that they have always been an energy company transitioning from coal to oil, from gas to a low-carbon future. Shell's official website, on the other hand, does not mention oil and gas on its 'About Us' web page. Chevron's official website is designed in the same way. This clearly shows that these companies want to create a profile that is as interested in the climate agenda and its goals as they are independent of oil and gas.


In this context, Shell is one of the companies with the biggest contradiction between its public image and actions. According to InfluenceMap, Shell has the highest green rhetoric, emphasizing pro-environmental activities in 70% of its marketing strategies and advertising campaigns, while its actions do not follow suit. ExxonMobil makes environmental and green claims in 70% of its marketing strategies and advertising campaigns, while only 8% of its capital expenditure is dedicated to low-carbon targets. TotalEnergies, on the other hand, made green claims in 62% of its marketing strategies and advertising campaigns but allocated 25% of its investments to low-carbon targets. Research also covers that companies that try to send the message that they are not oil companies, but part of the solution to climate change, have recently been lobbying governments to weaken renewable energy policies and increase fossil fuel production. The research found that since 2021, major companies, except TotalEnergies, have directly lobbied for policies favoring more oil and gas purchases. For example, Shell's CEO Gretchen Watkins argued in Congress on April 6, 2022, that new oil and gas projects should be allowed to be built in the Gulf of Mexico. It was also announced that all companies except Chevron have recently been working to undermine renewable energy policies by promoting the long-term use of natural gas. In December 2021, Exxon opposed a proposed law banning the use of natural gas in new buildings in New York City, misleading the public with advertisements that electric appliances would cost homeowners thousands of dollars. On the other hand, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell are among the 600 members of the American Petroleum Institute. It is a foundation that was founded in 1919 and today takes a certain stance against climate policies.


Although this article focuses on recent research, this is not a new development. Oil and gas companies have been using different ways to hide their ecosystem-damaging actions for decades. In recent years, with increment discourse on clean energy and climate change, they are trying to create a perception of green identity by shifting in this direction. It is known as a marketing strategy called "greenwashing." With this strategy, big companies mislead people into buying their products. So, examining companies' expenditure reports and expense items will be useful to understand whether they are following a greenwashing strategy.

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