Library Dissertation Showcase

Is the globalisation of symbolic corporate environmentalism creating commercial accountability?

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2019

The years leading up to 2019 have seen extreme change – in political power dynamics, in ecosystems and the weather, and in what is expected of many commercial organisations. This time period has also brought clarity about the scale of our environmental challenges and opportunities (Winston, 2019; IPCC, 2019). As such, the consumer and capital market for green products and services has expanded rapidly in the last decade (Delmas and Burbano, 2011). A current movement of ‘progressive’ environmentalism is encouraging people on all sides of the political spectrum to be more eco-conscious and global markets reflect this, showing that the green economy now holds roughly the same market share as the fossil fuel sector (FTSE Russell, 2017). Accordingly, large corporations are inevitably forced to respond to such changing environmental behavioural dynamics to continue being viewed positively in the public domain. Therefore, adjacent to the increasing capital market for environmental products and services lies the growing propensity for stakeholders (be it consumers or shareholders) to determine whether an organisation is environmentally legitimate. ‘Green’ schemes by corporations purporting their environmentalism result in company stakeholders evaluating such a scheme’s ‘symbolic performance’, thus leading to a calculation to which adopting green solutions produces positive social evaluations on a company’s character (Winston, 2019). Though, attempts to rapidly change entrenched company policies of environmental degradation is evoking classical ‘straw-man’ fallacies. Corporate claims of positive environmental performance have increased rapidly in recent years and consequently, so has the incidence of greenwashing, that is, a form of communication grounded in misleading individuals into forming positive beliefs about a company’s environmental footprint and inherent practices. As a response to this relatively new subject area, a multi-disciplinary explosion of ‘greenwash’ literature has occurred, building on many of the original concepts from the 1970’s. This paper utilises such research, using case studies and other key literature to create a doctrinal legal analysis critiquing the concept that corporate green environmentalism is creating social accountability. Moreover, this paper focuses on the behaviour of three organisations and/or typologies of corporate social responsibility ‘breaches’ in the realm of environmental greenwashing, namely: HSBC, BP and plastic straw abatement. Concluding that often because of embedded company and societal norms, green behaviour is merely symbolic. What’s more, corporate social responsibility is undertaken as ‘insurance’ in case of negative publicity and is only a prudent investment if it creates a positive social output towards such an organisation. This is facilitated by the growing individualisation of responsibility in regard to climate action and an emphasis on ‘solutions’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘eco-modernisation’ as a means to act on pollution control and consequentially, climate change.

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