With near-universal social media use by America’s young people, these apps and sites introduce profound risk and mental health harms in ways we are only now beginning to understand fully,” says Jack Resneck Jr. president of the American Medical Association. While the bipartisan and well-intentioned, Protecting Kids on Social Media Act has been introduced to protect young people from the dangers of social media, will the legislation also reduce the harms of corporate greenwashing and its effects on youth who use social media?
Social media is ripe for corporate greenwashing and posturing as “sustainable”, “environmentally friendly”, and “climate-conscious” companies that are doing everything in their power to tackle the climate emergency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With young people flocking to social media for everything from the latest fashion trends to the morning news, fossil fuel companies are exploiting lax Federal Trade Commission “Green Guides” and influencing an impressionable group with their lies.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides are guidelines for companies and corporations to follow to avoid misleading environmental claims in marketing and advertising. Last updated in 2012, the Green Guides have not kept up with the times. In 2022, Instagram alone generated $43.2 billion in ad revenue. With the amount of money social media companies stand to make from advertising and 78% of US consumers valuing an eco-friendly lifestyle, there is little incentive for companies to minimize greenwashing. Unfortunately, this is leading many young consumers astray.
Corporate greenwashing is when a company exaggerates its environmental credentials through advertising and marketing. Think of Greta Thunberg calling out Shell’s vainly disguised greenwashing tactic by posing a climate poll to its base about individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poll blatantly ignored Shell being one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and shifted the focus from corporate responsibility to individuals.
Thunberg is a well-informed youth climate activist whose years of experience have trained her to identify greenwashing tactics on social media. But what about novel youth climate activists or just young people using social media to lead more environmentally sustainable lifestyles? From Instagram to Tik Tok and YouTube, teens prefer consuming news through social media over traditional news outlets. Fossil fuel corporations are capitalizing on this trend, and young people are primed for deception through well-disguised greenwashing tactics on social media.
In 2022, Harvard researchers found that 72 percent of social media posts by oil and gas companies engaged in some form of greenwashing. 90 percent of teens aged 13-17 years old use social media; it’s safe to say they will or have been exposed to a greenwashing post from fossil fuel companies at some point in their life. I visit social media daily, and it has indeed become the target of greenwashing ads.
Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future is a gas front parading around as the solution to our energy crisis. They state in their Instagram ad that “…expanding U.S. natural gas production and exports can cut coal use, lowering domestic and global greenhouse gas emissions.” Natural gas expansion is not the solution to a transition to clean, renewable energy but is instead a greenwashing tactic ignoring that natural gas combustion in the U.S. accounts for 34 percent of the total U.S. emissions.
Fortunately, the FTC has the power to regulate and minimize fossil fuel companies’ greenwashing tactics to appear as sustainable solutions to the climate emergency. Action for the Climate Emergency (ACE) joined other climate groups such as ClientEarth, Earthworks, and the Sierra Club to submit public comments on April 24 urging the FTC to update the Green Guides and include guidance specifically around carbon offsets, renewable energy, and climate change. ACE alone solicited 3,665 comments from a majority of young people!
Social media is a popular platform for information for young people and needs stricter regulations against greenwashing tactics. Along with updating the Green Guides, the largest financial backers of greenwashing companies, banks, must be pressured to divest and defund fossil fuel companies. This can be accomplished by joining campaigns that target financial institutions or demanding that elected officials create a pathway to an actual “green” future – passing 100 percent clean, renewable energy legislation.