December 28, 2023
Greenwashing in the chemical industry - Is it real?

How does the Chemical Industry impact the environment?

The chemical industry is highly energy intensive and uses substantial amounts of hydrocarbons for raw materials and fossil fuels such as natural gas, crude oil, and coal, ultimately leading to high GHG emissions. The Scope 1 and 2 emissions of the chemical industry are noteworthy and the plastic waste it generates is questionable. About 50% of its total emissions are Scope 3, putting the industry in a lot of unwanted, unnecessary, and not-so-positive limelight.

The chemicals industry accounts for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions and faces increasing pressure to decarbonize. The International Energy Agency estimates emissions from primary chemical production must decline 10% by 2030 to limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius, though decarbonization may depend on the development of new technologies and processes.

Emissions from the industry represent more than 30% of global GHG emissions. Chemical production, cement production, and metal production collectively are the largest contributors to emissions within the industrial sector. Having realized its severe impact on the environment, the industry is stepping up - from amending policies and compliance with regulations to reconfiguring value chains and recycling the tonnes of waste produced. The chemical sector is already on its journey to a sustainable future. However, are they earnestly adopting environmentally conscious practices and actively pursuing sustainable initiatives? 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to the deceptive practice of portraying a business, its products, or its operations as eco-friendly when in reality their environmental impact or practices may be inadequate or inconsistent with their claims. This can involve false or exaggerated claims about the environmental responsibility of the business, while not taking substantial actions to mitigate environmental impact and achieve the sustainability goals. It also involves a lack of transparency in disclosing the true environmental performance. Greenwashing is highly unethical as it involves false and misleading marketing campaigns or techniques that lead consumers or stakeholders into believing that a business is committed to sustainability and environmental responsibility, despite being a defaulter.

This misleading marketing strategy is often used to create a positive public perception of a company or its products and gain a competitive edge and financial performance without actually implementing meaningful sustainability measures.

How real is Greenwashing in the Chemical Industry?

Production of hazardous chemicals- chemicals that shouldn't even exist!

The manufacturing of toxic and hazardous chemicals has long been a contentious issue, as evidenced by the infamous case involving DuPont, one of the world's largest chemical companies, which began in 1998 and resulted in a 19-year-long court battle and a settlement payment of over $2 billion. DuPont's involvement in this legal saga stems from their production of Teflon, which utilized a highly toxic chemical, PFOA(Perfluorooctanoic Acid), known to cause various illnesses, including cancer. Ongoing scientific studies are still investigating the potential health effects of PFOA exposure on workers, residents in communities with PFOA-contaminated drinking water, and the general public. Some studies have linked higher levels of PFOA in the body to elevated cholesterol, liver function changes, weakened immune response, thyroid disease, and increased risks of kidney and testicular cancer.

PFOA has also been found to have severe environmental impacts, with reports describing disturbing incidents such as animals suffering deformities. For instance, a farmer in Parkersville named Wilbur Tennant had to painstakingly document the rotting bodies of 260 cows that died, revealing blackened teeth, blue eyes, and discolored and dysfunctional organs caused by PFOA contamination. He believed that the DuPont chemical company was responsible for this. DuPont was found to have dumped over 10,000 tons of PFOA sludge into pits, resulting in the pollution of agriculture, water, and animals. In 1993, goats were found to transmit PFOS(Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), another type of PFAS(Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances ) chemical, to their offspring through their milk, and by 1998, PFOA had been detected in birds and eagles. A study even suggested babies exposed to PFAS could suffer impaired immune-system development. 

Laboratory animal studies have also shown that exposure to PFOA can lead to developmental changes such as delayed bone growth, delayed mammary gland development, and accelerated sexual development in males. Another major company implicated in the use of PFAS chemicals is 3M, which knowingly violated over 244 requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act, resulting in damage spanning over 100 square miles, impacting the drinking water and agriculture of 125,000 Americans, and exposing workers to excessively high levels of fluorochemicals and organic fluorine compounds. Ironically, 3M had touted these fluorochemicals as "the solution for all your problems" in their advertising, while allegedly downplaying and manipulating their own research to portray their products as safer than they were, according to investigative journalism by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept. Despite these controversies, companies such as DuPont, 3M, and Arkema continue to operate today, underscoring the issue of greenwashing in the chemical industry.

Plastic recycling or incineration?

The amount of plastic waste the chemical industry generates is immense. Although plastic is not a hazardous waste in the traditional sense, it is a direct threat to the environment. Plastic can be recycled, but it usually is not. Recycling is an ideal way to manage plastic waste post-consumer-use.

But is plastic really being recycled? Or is it just incineration? Plastic management and disposal are being portrayed as recycling, while what is happening behind the curtains is just burning it off! The industry is dodging the pollution authorities by calling incineration advanced recycling of plastic waste, even though nothing gets recycled. The trash that enters a so-called advanced recycling facility is burned, creating harmful air pollution and toxic ash. Plastic pollution is a crisis that needs immediate address. But in the name of going green and eco-friendly disposal, the industry is promoting a decades-old incineration method as a new way to solve the crucial problem. 

Having a way to make plastic waste disappear that sounds eco-friendly helps the industry justify the exponential growth in plastics production. This is greenwashing at its worst. The disposed off plastic then makes its way to landfills. This is one of the most horrifying truths that is facilitating chemical companies to pretend to contribute to the well-being of the environment. Efficiently recycling products or materials when they reach the end of their useful life has the potential to revolutionize the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) landscape.

Greenwashing, a deceptive and prevalent practice in the industry, came under heavy criticism at COP27 and will no longer be tolerated. Businesses cannot claim to be net zero while simultaneously engaging in the construction or investment in new fossil fuel supply or other environmentally harmful activities. Additionally, participating in lobbying activities against climate change or selectively reporting on only a portion of their business's assets while concealing the rest is unacceptable.

Can greenwashing be curbed?

Tackling greenwashing in the chemical industry, which is known for its harmful environmental impacts, requires thoughtful deliberation. All stakeholders  customers, investors, and employees are required to be involved in being the advocate against any fraudulent sustainability practices.

  • Stricter regulations and their enforcement are necessary. Regulations related to chemical manufacturing, waste management, emissions, and other environmental impacts.
  • Encouraging chemical companies to embrace transparency in their chemical usage, emissions, waste management practices, and other environmental impacts is crucial. Promoting the disclosure of comprehensive and standardized sustainability reports that provide verifiable data and metrics on a company's environmental performance should be emphasized.
  • Efforts should be made to promote industry-wide initiatives prioritizing sustainability, transparency, and accountability.
  • Companies that demonstrate genuine sustainability efforts can be rewarded by customers with extending support in purchasing their products and services. Customers can also support businesses with a genuine track record of implementing environmentally responsible practices, reducing their carbon footprint, and making meaningful contributions to sustainability.
  • Companies must be held accountable for their environmental claims. Feedback and concerns must be shared with companies and they must be communicated that greenwashing is unacceptable.

In conclusion, it's up to all of us to hold companies accountable and demand genuine sustainability. By promoting robust regulations, encouraging industry-wide standards, and fostering greater transparency and accountability, we can collectively curb greenwashing in the chemical industry and pave the way for a greener, more transparent future.

Greenwashing can be checked by adopting transparent reporting and efficient implementation of the company's sustainability objectives. At Oren, we offer ESG solutions to enable precise collection and analysis of your company's ESG data. Our services provide you with the assurance and capability to implement initiatives that align with your sustainability objectives and tackle the climate change.

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