Playing the Greenwash Game

As the world continues to debate the way it should look under the new realities of sustainability, global warming and environmental protection, beware the flood of 'greenwash'.

Greenwash, according to the dictionary, pertains to "activities by a company or an organization that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment."

And what better example of that is the ongoing saga of palm oil and deforestation by the companies controlled by Indonesia's Widjaja family and grouped under the name Sinar Mas. The so-called audit that was released recently required closer reading than listening to the press pronouncements controlled by the company's public relations gurus, Bell Pottinger in both London and Jakarta.

It also shows how the world of corporate sponsorship and public relations work.

Although Bell Pottinger gained headlines around the world saying the audit had cleared Singapore-listed PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology of deforestation, it has only taken a couple of weeks for US fast-food chain Burger King to announce it was cancelling all palm oil contracts from the Sinar Mas group. Nestle, the world's biggest consumer products group, has also announced it would cancel contracts with Sinar Mas.

In a statement, Burger King said: "After completing a thorough review of the independent verification report conducted by Control Union Certification (CUC) and BSI Group, BKC believes the report has raised valid concerns about some of the sustainability practices of Sinar Mas's palm oil production and its impact on the rainforest. These practices are inconsistent with BKC's corporate responsibility commitments."

It concludes: "As a result, BKC has decided it will no longer purchase palm oil from Sinar Mas or its subsidiaries." That means that the 17.6 percent of palm oil sourced for Burger King global operations will now be bought from somewhere else. This would suggest that in spite of company executives and Bell Pottinger proclaiming to the world that the company had been vindicated and was innocent, it was untrue so far as Burger King's bosses were concerned.

Indeed to highlight just how far the process of greenwash has gone, the invitations to the London press conference gave the impression that global consumer products giant Unilever had given a thumbs up to the audit. Considering that Unilever had been one of the high-profile defectors from the Sinar Mas companies, it piqued reporters' interest.

What's of interest is that Unilever has remained tight-lipped about the audit and has made no press statements at all. All this should have been obvious during the rush to clear PT Smart and Sinar Mas, since their global crisis management public relations team at Bell Pottinger also represent, surprise, surprise, Unilever.

All things are open to interpretation. Burger King was not followed by Cargill, the world's largest trader of agricultural commodities. Cargill has said it will continue to trade with PT Smart and other Sinar Mas firms. It was: "...encouraged [that] PT SMART has acknowledged areas of non-compliance with the [Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil] and its own company policies, that it has committed to taking corrective actions and to strengthening its standard operating procedures to address these."

And further down in the release it acknowledges the detail we highlighted in the original audit; that the audit only covered PT Smart operations and excluded the previous operations and activities of the parent group, Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources Limited, which is not RSPO certified. But Cargill would discuss its future with Golden Agri-Resources too.

In the interest of balance, Cargill does have a 'plan'. It has a policy of only using RSPO certified products. Indeed some of its own plantations were among the first to gain such accreditation, and it plans to work towards that. While Cargill,one of the world's biggest agribusiness concerns, is now firmly in the sights of the next Greenpeace pressure campaign, expect less than explosive responses from some of the other environmental groups. The company made US$107.9 billion in sales and other revenues and its profits were $2.6 billion this year (actually profits were down by 22 percent from the year before) and it knows how to spend it.

Without pre-empting Conservation International's (CI) reaction to any future Greenpeace campaign against Cargill, it may find it hard to turn away the US$1.5 million donation for a biodiversity conservation project in Ore, Papua New Guinea from Cargill and Flora and Fauna International will be loathe to hand back cash for its orangutan project in Kalimantan.

Now watch out for the greenwash again and bear in mind the words of Lord Bell of that oft-mentioned PR company, who reportedly told a British newspaper examining the ethics of taking dubious foreign contracts, "I am not an international ethics committee."

Gerry O'Kane blogs as Green Business ( for The Asian Correspondent, where this originally appeared.