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November 29, 2021

COP26 as Greenwashing? How a Human Rights Approach Can Shift Us Away from the Greenwashing Trap

Posted by By Cindy Wu, JD’22

This month, world leaders and business executives convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th United Nations climate conference. Outside the conference rooms, a different kind of convening took place, as hundreds of thousands of activists gathered in Glasgow and globally to demand more immediate and drastic action on climate change. Amongst these protesters was Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly referred to COP26 as a “greenwashing” event.

This refrain resounded among activists. But what is greenwashing? And how can those with a genuine interest in saving the planet avoid the trap of greenwashing? I offer two simple but loaded words as the answer: human rights.

Person holding sign at protest that says Blah Blah Blah
A school strike for climate in advance of COP26. Credit: Mænsard vokser / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What is greenwashing and why has COP26 been criticized as greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in reference to the practice of companies holding out their “green” activities to the consuming public while obscuring the degradation caused by their other activities. Think Nestlé Waters proudly announcing a plastic water bottle made from “100% sustainable and renewable resources,” while simultaneously depleting aquifers and other public water sources, including on Indigenous land.

Activists are also now using the label to criticize what they view as empty promises made by world leaders at COP26. Among those promises are a pledge from 40 countries to phase out coal, an agreement from 105 countries to reverse deforestation, and a commitment from a coalition of banks to have net-zero investments by 2050. Although these pledges have the appearance of curbing emissions, many observers view them as toothless, empty promises, especially given the fact that some communities are already knee-deep in the effects of the climate crisis.

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