A key characteristic of the companies’ posts was how often they talked about their sponsorship of sporting events or charities, rather than talking about what they sell.
“Basically, this type of activity should be welcomed. The problem becomes when corporate philanthropy veers into corporate social responsibility washing, things like greenwashing, sportswashing and wakewashing,” Supran said.
Examples of greenwashing include a Lufthansa Instagram post merging an airplane with the body of a shark swimming in the ocean.
The post was designed to highlight a sharkskin-style coating being applied to the aircraft’s body to improve airflow and reduce fuel consumption.
Tweets from Air France-KLM and Lufthansa used the hashtag “SustainableAviationFuel” to promote the use of biofuel on some routes.
These contributions ignore the fact that such fuels represent a tiny fraction of all fuel consumed by industry, and not all experts are yet convinced they can enable climate-safe air travel, the report says.
Green posts also tend to feature more women, non-binary people, and non-Caucasian people — for example, a tweet by Wizz Air on World Environment Day features an older black woman who appears to be part tree, part human, standing in a more voluptuous green Forest.
The post is not only symbolic, the report says, it also promotes an article on how to reduce personal energy consumption.
This is a common corporate practice, dubbed by researchers as “redirecting responsibility,” putting individual behavior, rather than government and corporate actions, at the center of climate change mitigation.
A Fiat YouTube video, meanwhile, shows a group of attractive youngsters sailing and driving through beautiful mountains in the Italian countryside.
“Behavioral psychologists have observed significant affective responses from consumers exposed to images of nature,” Supran explained.
“It can make a company appear greener in a unique way, doing the subtle work of overriding even the most critical of observers in quite insidious ways.”
Silvia Pastorelli, an activist with Greenpeace, said in a statement that the report highlighted techniques “hidden in plain sight”.
“This is a systematic greenwashing effort that needs to be addressed with a legal ban on all fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship across Europe, as has been done with tobacco,” she added.