'Just the beginning': dawn of greenwash era for journalism in Asia?

Curtailed press freedom in Asia makes the job of calling out greenwashing increasingly difficult – at a time when corporate accountability is critical in the fight against climate change. Experts think greenwashing is only just beginning as PR firms try to mislead regulators, investors and consumers.

A press conference at the AVPN Global Conference in Bali
A press conference in Bali, Indonesia. Low press freedom in Southeast Asia is a potential barrier for journalists to call out greenwash. Image: Robin Hicks/Eco-Business

The post-pandemic surge in misleading green claims could be the beginning of a new era of greenwashing in Asia, as corporations race to fulfill sustainability commitments and cash in on the rise of conscious consumerism.

“Sadly, I think it [greenwashing] is only just getting started,” said Sam Geall, London-based chief executive of China Dialogue, an independent online publication that reports on the environment in China and Asia-Pacific.

The push from governments to meet decarbonisation targets, investors to find sustainable options for their capital and consumers to seek greener products has created the right conditions for greenwash, he said. “Enter public relations companies and increasingly sophisticated strategies to try to mislead regulators, investors and consumers.”  

Geall was speaking to Eco-Business after the Sustainability Media Academy (SMA), a new training initiative for journalists in Asia, organised by EB Impact, Eco-Business’s philanthropic arm. He was part of a panel discussion on how to navigate greenwashing, the practice of making sustainability claims of dubious credibility.

Greenwashing is a problem for journalists across Asia, particularly in countries where press freedom is low and authoritarian governments lean on newsrooms, making it harder for journalists to hold powerful elites to account, said Kavita Chandran, a Singapore-based journalism trainer for Thomson Reuters.

In recent years, laws designed to curb fake news and disinformation have resulted in arrests and convictions for journalists in Southeast Asia, which is home to some of the world’s most heavily censored media. Governments have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to impose tighter controls on the press and reinforce obstacles to the free flow of information, according to Reporters without borders, a media watchdog.

A journalist working for a Singapore government-run publication told Eco-Business that state media have less opportunity to challenge greenwash than independent media. Last October, Singapore introduced an anti-foreign interference law which makes it easier for the authorities to clamp down on news outlets.

Enter PR companies and increasingly sophisticated strategies to try to mislead regulators, investors and consumers.

Sam Geall, CEO, China Dialogue

But it is still possible for journalists to call out greenwash, even in countries like China where press freedom is lower than almost anywhere in the world. Probing top-down sustainability commitments, such as China’s net-zero emissions target, is one opportunity for doing so, said Geall. 

“The space for watchdog journalism has shrunk considerably in China in the last few years. But in contrast to other issues, environmental sustainability is a space where journalists can still hold actors to account,” he said.

“China’s net-zero commitment is a big political narrative. It sends a signal to the whole system to get in line and that opens up an opportunity to do reporting that scrutinises local governments and companies to ensure they stick to these commitments.”

Where journalism is most vulnerable to greenwashing

Solutions journalism – which a July study of international media revealed is growing in popularity as newsrooms shift editorial focus from the problems caused by climate change to potential fixes – is particularly greenwash-prone, Geall noted.

“Too often, it is easy for companies to claim they have achieved sustainable innovation, when it either doesn’t work, or is an early stage discovery far from commercialisation, a solution to one problem that causes another problem, or there is a trade-off they’d rather not talk about,” Geall told Eco-Business.

“In other words, there is too much hype and not enough serious reporting about the technologies that will likely shape the future of energy, food, mobility and more, and the economic models that will sustain them,” he said.

Phil Jacobson, an Indonesia-based journalist for independent conservation news website Mongabay, highlighted palm oil as one sector that has managed to greenwash its role as a provider of livelihood benefits for local communities and smallholder farmers in the media, until recently.

An investigation by Mongabay, non-profit journalism outfit The Gecko Project and the BBC in May revealed that big palm oil companies in Indonesia have been depriving smallholders of millions owed to them. Legally, palm oil companies have had to ensure that rural communities benefit from the large palm oil plantations near them.

Geall said that the palm oil trade has also succeeded in greenwashing the argument that palm oil is an environmentally sustainable crop because it is high-yielding. Stories in publications such as The Guardian and The Economist report that palm oil produces more oil per hectare than other vegetable oil crops, so is inherently sustainable.

“Productivity shouldn’t ever be a proxy for sustainability,” Geall said. “Just because you can get a higher yield from palm oil in Indonesia than sunflower oil in Belarus, this doesn’t mean the land has the same ecological importance.”

Palm oil is often grown on biodiverse, carbon-rich peatlands home to critically endangered species such as orangutans, he pointed out.

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