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Greenwashing Capitalism

As the climate crisis deepens, corporate interests are adopting the language of environmentalism – but their ultimate aim is to defend the system that is destroying the planet.

Capitalist popular culture is not denying the system’s internal problems – it just denies that an alternative system is possible or desirable. Credit: Fuse / Getty Images

The by-products of an economy oriented around profit are plain for all to see: abhorrent working conditions, poverty, grotesque inequality, and ecosystem collapse. All of this to the backdrop of intensifying climate change that is already destroying communities, displacing people from their homes, ruining livelihoods, and killing innocent people.

Mark Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism accounts for the strength of ideology in making capitalism common sense despite all this. Inspired by the slogan ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’, Fisher defines capitalist realism as: ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative.’ Fisher notes that climate crisis and environmentalist critiques offer the strongest rebuttal to capitalist realism: ‘far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment.’

How does capitalism neutralise this seemingly irrefutable challenge to its ideological foundations? While hard-line conservatives are distracted by conspiratorial climate change denial funded by the fossil fuel industry, capital placates everyone else by incorporating ecological and climate concern into its own culture and marketing.

In a classic example, Fisher describes the environmentalism of the Disney/Pixar movie Wall-E (2008). The world is overcome by waste due to consumerism. Human civilisation migrates to spaceships, where overconsumption gets even worse, while robots clean Earth. Eventually humanity returns to Earth and rediscovers the joys of abundant planetary living under the same corporate regime responsible for the original crisis.

My Dad took me and my brother to see the film when it came out. On the way out he asked us what we thought the message was. As long as he could hold our pre-adolescent attention, we briefly discussed the themes of waste and overconsumption. Years later, upon reading Fisher’s discussion of the film, I gained a new understanding of the function of Wall-E. Fisher argues: ‘the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.’

The idea is that having spent an hour and forty minutes watching a film about consumerism and environmental collapse, we can feel righteous about our critical understanding of the imperfections of our system without actually doing anything to change it. Capitalist popular culture is not denying the system’s internal problems (indeed, it profits from satirising them). It just denies that an alternative system is possible or desirable.

Popular concern for climate change is co-opted by corporations into their marketing and public relations campaigns. From 2020, meat substitute company Quorn put climate change at the centre of advertising campaigns. One ad said: ‘We care about the world around us more than ever and we love our food. So Quorn Crispy Nuggets are a step in the right direction because they help us reduce our carbon footprint and they taste amazing.’

Another advert is a YouTube collaboration with corporate partner Liverpool Football Club. Players Xherdan Shaqiri, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson awkwardly laugh through their corporate obligation obviously uncomfortable with the fact that none of them are close to being vegetarian. Henderson brings some respectability to proceedings with a dignified remark: ‘To have everything in moderation, that’s the best way.’

Companies like Quorn don’t have much interest in transforming the food system to eliminate workers’ rights abuses, environmental degradation, and emissions. For this corporation, individuals ‘reducing their carbon footprint’ and practicing moderation is conveniently synonymous with buying their product.

The first time I encountered the climate justice marketing of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was in November 2015. I’d just arrived in Paris for the annual youth climate conference preceding the UN climate summit. On the wall of a Metro station was a large Ben & Jerry’s poster comparing their ice cream to the planet: ‘Quand c’est foundu, c’est foutu!’ (When it’s melted, it’s fucked!), also promoting the climate march organised for the day before the summit.

My first impression was of the hypocrisy of a dairy company advertising its support for climate justice while profiting from emissions-intensive animal agriculture. I later learned that although Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are progressive activists, including funding Bernie Sanders’ campaigns for President and campaigning to reduce corporate influence in politics, the company was bought by multi-national conglomerate Unilever in 2000. Supporting climate justice, migrants’ rights, or Black Lives Matter is a just a brand for this subsidiary of Unilever.

For consumers, buying Ben & Jerry’s is a satisfying expression of progressive values, as if they’re making some difference to the climate crisis. Unilever enhances the environmentalist reputation of its subsidiary and, most importantly, sells more products to make a profit. Capital is driven to turn everything into a commodity, including anti-capitalism.

Capitalism’s evolution into its neoliberal stage was driven by the aims of consolidating capital’s power over labour and securing new markets to profit from. Neoliberalism’s headline ideological promise was reducing governmental interference in the economy. Actually existing neoliberalism has instead redirected state power towards imposing and upholding deregulation, privatisation, de-politicisation, and austerity.

These reforms began in the 1970s and 1980s amid a crisis of high inflation and high unemployment beginning with Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, and the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the UK and US. Another wave of reforms came under the guise of austerity after the 2008 financial crisis.

Neoliberalism has emerged roughly in parallel to the intensification of climate crisis. Some think of this as an unfortunate accident of history, cruelly impeding our attempts to decarbonise (the effort to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions across the economy), but neoliberalism was designed and (with the full force of the state) imposed to inject a few more decades of profitable life into capitalism as it faced existential crises of its own making. Neoliberalism is not the root cause of climate injustice, but its reforms have facilitated capital’s continued profiting from it.

Deregulation has meant stripping away any constraints on capital’s right to profit, most significantly for the climate, including fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them to discover and extract fossil fuels. The privatisation of public assets has handed key sectors of industry to capital.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major privatised large sections of the economy by selling state-owned utilities to private investors. This included Jaguar, British Telecom, British Aerospace, Britoil, British Gas, British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways, British Coal, and British Rail. What is striking about this list of transport, manufacturing, and energy companies is the role they might have played in a government-led energy transition had they not been stripped of democratic public control.

With deregulation and privatisation comes de-politicisation. There’s no need for democratic politics to interfere with the ‘free market’ as it maximises profits and neglects all else. With industrial strategy abandoned and finance capital supreme, the failure to decarbonise makes clear that whether capital or governments are in charge, the economy is political and prioritising profit has dire consequences.

The austerity imposed after the 2008 financial crisis was as political a choice as any. In the UK, David Cameron’s government presented austerity as necessary to balance the books amid bloated government debt and a public spending deficit. Government investment and spending was demonised as irresponsible and austerity was used as cover for finishing what Thatcher started: hollowing out the remains of the welfare state.

Government subsidies for renewable energies and green homes (insulation and retrofitting new boilers) were scrapped. They also sold the UK’s green investment bank, which it had launched to inject public money into green projects including energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Regardless of how little it was understood, climate change existed before neoliberalism. It will outlast it too. Returning to a pre-neoliberal capitalism by rolling back the last 50 years’ reforms doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. But by struggling for stronger regulation, expanding public ownership across the economy, democratising industrial strategy, and investing, we can push capitalism to its breaking point on a journey to climate justice.

A further pillar of capitalism’s endurance is a series of governance and financial institutions existing to uphold capital’s interests and reproduce the system. In the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund used ‘structural adjustment’ programs which attached conditions to introduce domestic neoliberal reforms to loans provided to Latin American and African countries experiencing economic crisis. Today, the United Nations manages the official multilateral climate negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), producing trade agreements under the guise of climate action. Multinational banks provide financial support for capital projects, most prominently fossil fuel infrastructure, while governance institutions provide political support.

The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline is a prime example, perversely designated as a ‘Project of Common Interest’ by the European Commission. The only ‘common interest’ about it is between the fossil fuel companies profiting from the gas they’ll transport from Azerbaijan, through Greece and Albania, to Southern Italy.

The pipeline is opposed by locals in Puglia in Italy over its climate impacts and threat to local farming livelihoods. A campaign for banks to defund the expansion failed with the European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development providing loans of €1.5 billion and €1 billion respectively. Banks made this unpopular and socially and ecologically devastating pipeline financially viable, while the EU made it politically legitimate.

We can often discuss ‘capital’ as unified in its interest of maximising profit, but we should also understand that capital takes different forms (by economic sector) which are often in competition with each other. Some of these fractions of capital, like fossil capital and agribusiness, are self-evidently existentially implicated in the climate crisis. Their core business model directly produces emissions. Other fractions, like finance, could conceivably continue to profit in a post-fossil-fuel capitalism. A stable climate could secure decades or centuries of more profitability for finance and other fractions.

So why is finance capital one of the chief supporters of fossil capital’s expansion? Why does real estate not do its part and retrofit property? Why does the technology industry not invest in transforming its emissions-intensive infrastructure? These long-term divergences in planetary interest are subordinated to the strength of short-term drive to maximise profits by investing in the very fossil fuel infrastructure that will render the planet eventually incompatible with any economic activity.

This logic produces a powerful class solidarity between fractions of capital, collaborating to uphold each other and mutually sustain the capitalist system they depend on. There will be no alignment away from profitable fossil fuels by capitalism, even as it expands the renewable energies market. As long as profit is supreme, climate change will get much worse.