I was a corporate greenwasher. Sorry for making you think metal straws would fix climate change

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The climate crisis is a disaster centuries in the making. Globalisation, deregulated capitalism, unfettered resource expansion and a pathological obsession with endless growth are just a few of the complex factors that have collided to create the warming world we live in. But reading my writing over the years, you’d be forgiven for believing a different version of events.

During my career as a freelance writer, I’ve worked with dozens of businesses to present the climate crisis as less a tragedy of government and corporate mismanagement, and more a matter of lifestyle. They would hire me to create content that acknowledged this was an issue we should all engage with, but also one that could be solved by amassing a collection of metal straws, reusable cups and hemp t-shirts.

I’ve worked with dozens of businesses to present the climate crisis as less a tragedy of government and corporate mismanagement, and more a matter of lifestyle.Credit: Simon Letch

The truth is, I was a greenwasher. The brands and corporations that commissioned this work crossed between finance, fashion, tourism, hospitality, beauty and auto industries. While the services varied, the briefs were similar: They sought to draw attention to small parts of their practice that were marginally environmentally sound in the hopes of distracting from larger dealings that were broadly environmentally abhorrent.

A tree-planting initiative from a bank that financed the fossil fuel industry, perhaps. Or a recycled-product launch from a beauty line that tests on animals. Travel guides promoting luxury eco resorts that failed to mention the carbon impact of flying or household swaps that suggested refillable cleaning products, but didn’t bring up energy providers. And many, many features that assured readers that buying “sustainable” fashion liberated them from the question of why they needed so much stuff in the first place.

My sins weren’t committed to purposely mislead. I wrote these articles because unlike true and detailed climate reporting, they paid well and were widely read.

My work was also successful because I understood the appeal of this content. Beneath all the easy fixes was a promise that we can have it all. It was nice to think this problem is solvable; that we can make a difference without it requiring too much work.

This wasn’t the creative life I pictured when I set out to become a writer. But it was a line of work I excelled at. Deep down, I don’t know if I am a talented journalist, but I do know I’m a great greenwasher. I can skim an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Greta Thunberg op-ed, fashion editorial and Pinterest roundup to spit out 600 words that can convince anyone that buying natural deodorant is an act of resistance.

The great sin of my work wasn’t just that it ignored the major issues of our time, but that it directed good intentions away from addressing them. In 2019, The Guardian reported that “20 fossil fuel companies whose relentless exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.” Rather than asking readers to interrogate corrosive power structures in the stories I wrote, they were urged to turn inwards. The subtle insinuation was that it was always somehow our personal fault, as if the climate crisis wasn’t accelerated by the acts of a handful of companies.

Author and activist Naomi Klein once wrote of the climate crisis: “This is not a consumer issue, it’s a political issue.” In other words, it’s going to take more than upcycling a candle into a pencil holder to fix it.

Although that’s not to say the key sell of my writing – that individuals have power to change things – isn’t true. Your home compost system won’t take down the fossil fuel industry, but investing your superannuation with institutions who don’t lend to them goes a long way. As does voting for political parties that have meaningful environmental policies. None of the commercial companies I worked with wanted to mention that, though.

Instead, they requested I focus on micro decisions we make every day. Now, I realised, the aim wasn’t to create action, but exhaustion. To overwhelm readers with personal carbon maths. Because after a day of berating yourself for accidentally drinking cow’s milk, who has the energy to stand up to corporate greed and lobbying?

I was a successful greenwasher because I understood the fear and guilt that underpins so much of this. I related to the experience of reading a terrifying headline and wanting to do something. But for all the misdirection I spewed, I still believe we hold more power than we realise.

In their report “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions”, climate researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas identified four behaviours that have the greatest impact on an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car free and having fewer children. That’s it – you literally could swap out all my green-washed content for one sentence. Although, good luck getting your invoice paid.

Looking back, I’m not proud of my output, but I’m also not entirely dismayed. The clicks my articles generated were evidence that people want to do better and are willing to engage with difficult questions of personal responsibility and consumption, that they will change habits to be better stewards for the planet. They just needed a better guide to help them do it.

Wendy Syfret is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

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