The ‘greenwashing’ of BP and Shell has been justified by some as the necessary corollary of concentrating campaigning against the biggest and worst of all oil multinationals, Exxon.
The Guardian editorial of 9th May argued ‘Of the Big Three oil giants, Exxon has the most to answer for by a long way. Shell and BP at least are investing in alternative "renewable" sources of energy and recognise the social responsibilities that multinationals need to address.’ This approach to the Esso boycott, not the boycott itself, is completely misguided, wrong and dangerous. Misguided because highlighting the faults of one specific multinational is entirely different to exonerating its competitors. For example, while focussing their argument on MacDonalds, the McLibel 2 never suggested that Burger King or other fast food chains were more progressive than their particular adversary, whom they completely embarrassed, achieving the most successful expose of corporate capitalism.
It is wrong to isolate the oil majors’ position on the Kyoto process from their overall role. On workers rights, human rights and the environment BP’s and Shell’s record is at least as bad as that of Exxon. The multinational oil industry is pivotal to international economic injustice. Moreover, such an approach is dangerous because it implies British based multinationals are more progressive than their US competitors, a political culture of undeclared nationalism which is allowing BP to get away with the most appalling abuses in Colombia. The latest Ecologist examines the claims of BP and Shell that they are tackling global climate change. Greg Muttitt and James Marriott show that while these companies want to be seen as ‘progressive’, support the Kyoto Protocol, and are indeed moving into renewable energy markets ("BP is now the largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells in the world"), the bottom line is that they still increasing production of non-renewable resources. Shell is increasing its extraction of oil and gas by 5% a year. BP is yet more ambitious with 5.5 to 7% target increases. The companies have developed a strategy that gives them " a set of policy options which allows them to expand their core business – oil – whilst still appearing to be green".
The authors argue that Britain’s two giant oil multinationals gave themselves three strategic aims: to be seen as progressive on the issue, to discourage government regulation of their business, and to ensure that markets for oil and gas do not decline. Muttitt and Marriott conclude:
"In these terms, BP and Shell are enjoying fantastic success. While behind the scenes companies have helped to stall government action on climate change, this stalling has contributed to the general public opinion that the companies are moving forward more effectively than governments … The plaudits of some environmental groups have helped these companies in their brand-building, and as a result their recruitment and morale. Meanwhile, the companies remain in control of the pace of change…. However virtuous BP and Shell may be relative to their competitors, they have other agendas. Ultimately, there are natural conflicts between being an oil company and providing the solution to climate change. What is desperately needed is for civil society to reclaim management of the climate problem, and to wrest control of the issue from the corporations".
The newly launched FTSE4Good "Ethical Index" excludes Esso, but includes Shell and BP. But read the small print, as the Financial Times detailed on 11th July. Citing the case of Shell and BP, which his fund FIS does not invest in, an ethical fund manager distinguished between his fund’s policy and the much broader approach adopted by the new FTSE4Good; ‘any company involved in what he called "controversial areas" – pollution, oppressive regimes – is ruled out by FIS. FTSE, on the other hand, rules them in, if they have strategies for managing these issues’. All that is needed to be on the Ethical Index is that a company has a policy to manage ethical issues, not that it is actually ethical. Evidently BP has a policy for managing its controversial operations in Colombia. It can be summed up in three words, denial, delay and denial. The hundreds of peasants who have lost their livelihoods due to its pipeline operations, and with whom the company’s subsidiary still refuses to treat with any humanity, may derive some dry humour from the idea that in Britain BP is cited as a progressive and ethical company.