When is the last time Burger King accused you of ruining the NHS for risking obesity? Remember when Farm Foods told you to mind your methane footprint, or Primark blamed its customers for supporting inhumane working conditions in developing countries. Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, it never happened.
What did happen was that Shell asked customers for things they would sacrifice to reduce emissions. Offsetting, stopping to fly, buying an electric vehicle and renewable energy were the options the company offered via its Twitter channel.
A global social media backlash led by AOC and Greta Thunberg ensued. Both Thunberg and AOC called out the greenwashing and gaslighting tactics followed by decades of climate change denial. The outcry called for corporate accountability.
A gentle reminder, Shell alone contributed 2.36% of global CO2 emissions between 1965-2017. Pre-Covid growth plans outline a 37.6% expansion between 2018-2030.
This would send the planet on a shareholder-pleasing track of destruction. Shell is aiming for a 5-degree global warming scenario. Life on earth could not be sustained if Shell were to have its way.
? What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions? #EnergyDebate
— Shell (@Shell) November 2, 2020
Some may apply the ‘a pot calling the kettle black’ adage, but the idiom does not fly in this context.
The Tweet’s flawed call to action insinuates that consumers and business are equal in their legacy, and their ability to generate systemic change. This is a system vs an individual power dynamic.
It is the pot lighting the fire that turns the kettle black, whilst actively lobbying against less polluting systems and technology.
By taking an exclusively individualist approach, guilt is being internalised. It disempowers
For the record, over the past ten years, the Dutch company has spent 250 million Euros in lobbying costs in Brussels alone. Since 2014, the company has doubled its European lobbying investments.
This, in turn, grants Shell greater influence over decisions about investments and excavation approvals in the gas and oil industry, including the way it is charged for its own emissions.
Shell deliberately avoided targeting communities with this Tweet. It was not asking groups advocating for environmental policy for the sacrifices they would make. Imagine the irony.
By taking an exclusively individualist approach, guilt is being internalised. It disempowers. It aims to silence a loudening call for systemic solutions that would challenge one of the world’s greatest polluters to refrain from its shareholder-pleasing path to destruction.
The focus on individual behaviour change is not too dissimilar to David Attenborough’s approach. Like Shell, he is mainly advocating for a change in consumption. Reduce. Reuse Recycle.
At the same time, systemic questions are removed from the limelight. Like the fact that 96% of Shell’s investments go into non-renewables
While Attenborough has a genuine interest in reversing the damage done, Shell can simply piggyback on the momentum.
It is a useful tool to address those who struggle to envision a future with a sharp drop in fossil fuels. It fuels the argument that: ‘If we all did a little less damage, the momentum would be great enough to turn the tide’.
At the same time, systemic questions are removed from the limelight. Like the fact that 96% of Shell’s investments go into non-renewables.
Piggybacking on individualistically positioned environmental campaigns is only one of the tactics mentioned in the ‘oil company publicity rule book’.
Another one is the pot framing alternatives to fire as whacky, and smoke as an unfortunate, but necessary side effect.
In summer 2019, the company launched a social media campaign encouraging a group of young people to travel from various locations like London to Istanbul, LA to Vegas with as little emissions as possible.
The ‘anything goes’ challenge saw people go-kart and pedal across the globe. Celebrities like Kaley Cuoco, alongside many high-profile bloggers, scootered, waterbiked, and skated across the continent for an entertaining piece of social media coverage.
At the same time, anyone soul-searching for a net-zero vision would have wondered if life without fuel is a jolly young people’s fantasy, far removed from the demands of the real world.
Former denialists have moved to downplaying the risk. Even Trump acknowledged the connection between human activity and climate change
While Green New Deal advocate AOC and youth activist Greta Thunberg were clearly not the intended recipients of Shell’s messaging, the effectiveness of their agenda-setting campaigns shine through in Shell’s adjusted response.
It is now difficult to deny the prospects and reality of climate change, even for the likes of Shell and co. Former denialists have moved to downplaying the risk. Even Trump acknowledged the connection between human activity and climate change.
It is likely that Shell’s online following is somewhat aware of the risks and acknowledge human involvement. They might even wonder about fossil fuel alternatives.
With public perception, Shell’s B2C strategy has shifted from denial. Instead, it doubled down on distraction, diversion, and disempowerment.
Outside its greenwashed social media bubble Shell’s strategy is less opaque. The energy giant unwittingly admits that its net-zero vision features decades of drilling, well into 2070.
It legally challenges its accountability and undermines stricter environmental policy. With changes in the way emissions are counted, it would seem that, on paper, Shell U-Turns. In reality, its break-neck ride towards climate catastrophe continues.
Now, Shell is a business futureproofing itself against a growing public backlash. As a public company, its health depends on profit projections and investor relationships. This is why Shell increasingly invests in its reputation.
How do energy companies benefit from the sliding door effect, whereby politicians seem to unrestrictedly slip between politics and consultancy roles in the private sector?
Yet, arguing against its advertising strategy only picks apart the crumbs of information the company deliberately shares: the 4-6% of its annual budget invested in renewables.
Even a backlash that gets hung up on Shell’s consumer-targeted communication about offsetting and planet-friendly innovation is likely to be seen as a sign of success for the company. It means that more critical conversations are avoided.
Therefore, discussions about systemic involvement and legacy, as both Greta Thunberg and AOC pointed out, are crucial.
What is Shell’s influence on politics? How do energy companies benefit from the sliding door effect, whereby politicians seem to unrestrictedly slip between politics and consultancy roles in the private sector?
What are the legal loopholes the company lobbies for? What is the real climate impact of Shell’s growth plans?
Circling back to the system vs individual power dynamic: Why is a discussion with Shell about making personal sacrifices helping the company achieve its corporate goals?
While individuals search for a genuine solution, Shell aims to commodify environmentalism
In an increasingly digital world, brands exhibiting human attributes blur the lines between individuals and organisations. On an eye-to-eye level, a discussion about solutions to climate change should be based on shared concerns or differences of opinion.
If a business consisting of a 123,000 strong workforce speaks to an individual, the conversation’s topic is equivalent to bait. The organisation holds the laser tag, and it becomes clear that frustration about the lack of progress is the intended outcome of the exercise.
While individuals search for a genuine solution, Shell aims to commodify environmentalism. The dialogue is doomed by default. Hence, other than calling out the hypocrisy of it, there is not much to engage with.
Instead, looking at the corporate shenanigans Shell gets up to when not playing laser tag will prove a lot more effective.
Statistics like the Guardian’s investigation into the top 20 polluters are a good starting point.
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