Shell-shocked – A Theoretical Analysis of The Oil Giant’s Propensity to Greenwash

 “Greenwash – (n) disinformation disseminated by and organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”

– Concise Oxford Dictionary, 10th edition 1999

Despite the fact that the term was not officially recognised in the English dictionary until the late 90s, the concept and study of ‘Greenwashing’ first became prominent over a decade prior (Rowell 2002). Greenpeace generated one of the first attempts to expose the practice of greenwashing in the build up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; publishing Kenny Bruno’s ‘Greenpeace Book of Greenwash’ as a means of “ highlighting the most egregious examples of corporate greenwash at the time” (Greenpeace 2011).

From the very beginning, oil industries have been at the heart of the debate. One of the classic examples is that of BP and their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ PR campaign, created by Ogilvy and Mather in 2000. “By simply blocking holes in pipelines, BP was able to make huge strides in the 1990s, beating its targets on reducing carbon emissions” (Grant 2007. P. 84). However, this alone was not enough to warrant a dramatic move towards making environmentalism a key element of the new branding strategy. Many critics were left outraged by the corporation’s claims. BP was soon dubbed, ‘Burning Planet’ by Greenpeace (Grant 2007).

Having made more profits in 1990 than any other company in the world, Shell were the first oil company to be placed under particularly intense scrutiny by Greenpeace, featuring as the second corporate case study in the ‘Book of Greenwash’ (Bruno 1992). Ever since, the corporate giant has been consistently at the forefront of environmental controversy. Now, in 2011, Shell have made a bold move similar to that of BP’s towards a more environmentalist approach in their advertising. The ‘Let’s Go’ advertising campaign, by JWT was launched in 2010 and is designed to focus on Shell’s commitment towards “building a better energy future” (Shell 2011).

This study will examine the ways in which Shell have impacted the environment over the past 21 years. In addition, an analysis of Shell’s history with regards to greenwashing will aid the discovery of the extent to which the corporation are now supporting the environment, or if they are still worthy of being held accountable for greenwashing.

A Brief History of Shell

Shell began over 200 years ago as a small London antique shop selling exotic seashells. The business, founded by Marcus Samuel, was soon passed down to his two sons Marcus Junior and Sam (Shell 2011). The two brothers took a keen interest in the importation of oil due to a surge in demand with the arrival of the internal combustion engine in 1886. In 1907, Shell joined forces with Royal Dutch Petroleum in an effort to reduce dependence on Russia for oil; becoming the Royal Dutch Shell Group.  “By the end of the 1920s Shell was the world’s leading oil company, producing 11% of the world’s crude and owning 10% of its tanker tonnage” (Shell 2011).  Ever since, the corporation has continued to grow; in 2010, Shell made $27 billion net cash from operating activities and claimed to have over 97 thousand employees worldwide (Shell 2010).

Examples of Shell’s Past Relationship With the Environment and Greenwashing

It was not until the 1970s and 80’s that environmental awareness became a key issue in the eye of the public. This was largely due to an increase in media exposure caused by “…the emergence of environmental platforms from political parties and Green parties in Europe and elsewhere…” (Bruno 1992, P. 2). Corporations soon realised that they would have to face up to the public’s new-found interest in the subject, giving rise to a number of greenwashing trends. One of the most controversial techniques to emerge from this realisation was that of ‘Astroturfing’. Greenberg et al. (2011, P.70) refer to Astroturfing as:

The development of fake grassroots organizations that may look and feel like they are community based, but which are created to manufacture the illusion of public or scientific skepticism or support for government or corporate policies and practices.

In 1989, Shell became a part of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – a group of oil, coal and automobile corporations that, with the help of Ruder Finn PR, “challenged climate change mitigation policies and sought to influence media coverage about global warming” (Greenberg et all. 2011, P. 70) by producing direct advertising and writing articles in newspapers, which condemned the Kyoto treaty negotiations and undermined the science behind global warming. It must be acknowledged, however, that there are a number of PR practitioners, particularly in today’s more modern (and arguably more informed) society, whom are completely opposed to the idea of undermining the environmental cause through spinning (Greenberg et al. 2011). James Hoggan (2009), founder of one of the largest independent PR agencies in Canada, states:

It is infuriating – as a public relations professional – to watch my colleagues use their skills, their training and their considerable intellect to poison the international debate on climate change… if you leave the lights on…make sure they’re shining in the shamed faces of the PR pros who are still trying to prevent sound, sensible policy change to affect this, perhaps the biggest threat humankind has ever faced.

In addition, more than ever, public concern about greenwashing in advertising is continuing to rise at a dramatic rate. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA 2008, P.4) claim that “In 2006, [they] received 117 complaints about environmental claims in 83 advertisements.  In 2007, complaints statistics revealed 561 complaints about 410 ads”.


It goes without saying that the oil industry has never been popular from an environmentalist perspective, and Shell is by no means an exception. The corporation’s worldwide practices have been responsible for a great number of environmental tragedies over the past century. For example, Greenpeace (1992) refer to an incident in April, 1988 in which Shell were responsible for a spill of 440,000 gallons of crude oil at their Martinez, California refinery. The spill polluted “over 100 acres of wetlands and 11 miles of shoreline, killing hundreds of animals and costing the company $20 million in penalties and $12 million in cleanup bills” (Bruno 1992, P. 13).

Possibly one of the most controversial topics, with regards to Shell’s operations, concerns their impact in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

Shell first began drilling in the oil rich area of Oganiland in 1958 (Bergin 2011). As operations expanded, the Ogani people and their land became subject to a number of devastating consequences. By 2005, Nigeria had become responsible for more gas flaring than anywhere else in the world. Estimates showed that the waste gasses being constantly burned by Shell contributed more to annual greenhouse gasses than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa combined – amounting to around 2.5 billion cubic feet of waste gas per day (Roderick 2005). A great number of these gas flares were placed within close proximity to Ogani communities, subjecting the people to constant toxic fumes, burning heat and unbearable noise against their own will. When coupled with an ever-increasing number of operational crude oil spillages, this encouraged Ken Saro-Wiwa to found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogani People (MOSOP).

In 1990, Ken Saro-Wiwa helped mobilise 300,000 Ogonis in a peaceful protest, speaking out against Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta. Five years later, he was put on trial and hanged for murder by the Nigerian government with very little explanation or evidence to support his convictions (Pilkington 2009). This led to outrage among a number of environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who held Shell accountable for working with the Nigerian government to get rid of Saro-Wiwa. In Shell’s 1998 sustainability report (P. 18), they stated:

The execution in 1995 of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis shocked and saddened all of us… We did not seek to influence his trial, but after the verdict the Chairman of the Group’s Committee of Managing Directors sent a letter to the Nigerian head of state urging him to grant clemency for all those sentenced.

It is not surprising that suspicion towards Shell’s involvement arose with such statements. It is questionable as to why Shell would not want to influence the trial given the amount of power they had established within the politics of the Nigerian government. Such language shows all the signs of greenwash, as it talks around the subject, not once acknowledging the allegations made against the corporation. This is a complete contradiction of the statements made on the first page of the report, such as:

This use of a green handwritten font aims to give a personable feel to the piece, creating the impression that Shell are a caring, understanding corporation. Such examples show how blatant Shell’s initial attempts of greenwashing were. But Shell didn’t stop there. In 2000, the corporation was awarded a greenwashing award by CorpWatch for its glossy magazine  ‘Profits & Principles’. CorpWatch (2000) refer to Shell’s statement that “its 5-year, $500 million investment in solar, biomass and forestry demonstrates its “commitment to the development of renewables.” They highlight the fact that this investment is only worth “…less than 1% of Shell’s overall budget, and far less than their investments in oil and gas.”

Another particularly well-known example of Shell’s Greenwashing was exposed in 2007 when the ASA banned a press advertisement produced by Shell for being “misleading” (ASA 2007, P.7).

The advert (pictured above) aimed to create an environmentally friendly perception of the corporation by highlighting the fact that they had begun using waste CO2 to grow flowers. The ASA soon discovered that although the copy clearly read “Don’t throw anything away”, Shell were in fact only using an insignificant 0.325% of their waste CO2 for the initiative (ASA 2007). In accordance with Futera’s (2008) ‘Greenwash Guide’, this print advertisement by Shell clearly possesses at least four of the ’10 signs of Greenwashing’; it uses suggestive pictures, irrelevant claims, ‘fluffy’ language and just simply is not credible.

Recent Communications

John Grant (2007) states:

There are two ways to show people that you are setting new standards as a company; one is to talk about your operations in general and the new principles they are guided by, the other is to talk about specific examples of hero products which you have developed.


In 2010, with the help of advertising agency JWT, Shell launched their new ‘Let’s Go’ campaign. In accordance with Grant (2007), the campaign utilises a pointing approach by focusing on the corporation’s new investments in “building a better energy future” (Shell 2011); for example, gas-to-liquid technology, or what they refer to as ‘clean energy’. This, in turn, aims to act as a contribution to the broader framing approach of positioning the corporation as environmentally friendly. It would appear that the campaign’s purpose, given its launch date, is to adopt a space left behind by British Petroleum after the April oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico (BBC 2010) and the abandoning of their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ approach. In an introduction to Shell’s 2010 sustainability report (P. 1), Peter Voser (CEO) makes immediate reference to the BP disaster, commenting thusly:

The incident became an environmental disaster that affected communities, but it began as a tragic accident…Safety has always been the first priority at Shell. A major incident like this serves as a warning to all to guard against complacency.

This statement clearly corresponds with the sixth of TerraChoice’s ‘6 Sins of Greenwashing’ by adopting role of ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ (TerraChoice 2007).

Besides the clear strategic move of the campaign’s launch date, there are a number of recent events and statistics which seem to significantly undermine Shell’s decision to adopt this new approach.

One element of the ‘Let’s Go’ campaign that appears particularly questionable is the print executions. Here is an example of one of the executions which reads “Let’s Help to Keep The Skies Blue”:

This seems like a completely unjustified statement given the fact that “In 2010, the flaring – or burning off – of natural gas in [Shell’s] Upstream business rose by 32% compared to 2009, to 10.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent” (Shell 2010, P.29), contributing to Shell’s overall emission of around 75 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2010 (Shell 2010).

In addition to this, this example shows a similar execution in which Shell sponsored bins at the World of Music Arts and Dance festival in New Zealand with the headline “Zero Waste”:

Once again, this advertisement is completely undermined by the fact that between 2002 and 2010, Shell’s annual hazardous waste disposal rose from 781,000 tonnes to 921,000 (Shell 2010).

These examples of Shell’s recent advertisements show a lack of regard for the ASA’s rules about environmental claims in advertising. For example, the ASA state that “…claims for environmental benefit must be assessed on a ‘cradle to grave’ basis (ASA 2008, P. 22). This means that it is misleading for Shell to use headlines such as ‘let’s help keep the skies blue’ unless they are applicable to the corporation’s business in general.

In addition to this, in the Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ‘Green Claims Guide’, it is advised that “Images should not imply an environmental benefit for a product if this cannot be justified” (DEFRA 2011, P. 23). In both of the previously mentioned examples, the imagery of bright blue skies and clean beaches portray a completely inaccurate representation of the murky, oil ridden

landscapes which surround a large proportion of Shell’s operations worldwide.

Unsurprisingly, Shell’s ‘Let’s Go’ campaign has caused outrage amongst environmental groups. On the 26th of January 2011, Friends of The Earth activists scaled the Shell headquarters in The Hague, hanging a large banner that read “Shell, Let’s Go Clean Up Nigeria” (Rowell 2011). Some of the activists protested outside the building, dressed as oil covered birds. Such protests demonstrate the fact that corporations can no longer get away with greenwashing in advertising without facing consequences and an increasingly large risk of negative publicity.


In a 2010 statement, Shell CEO Peter Voser claimed to believe that “Shell’s technical expertise, safety culture and rigorous global standards demonstrate that [they] are capable of operating responsibly, however challenging the condition” (Shell 2010, P. 1). Unfortunately, recent events have shown that this is not the case. On the 22nd of December, in less than the time that it has taken to conclude this study, Shell announced that they have been responsible for one of the worst oil spills in the Niger Delta for more than a decade. Shell admits to spilling around 40,000 barrels of crude oil into the Nigerian sea, covering an area of around 365 square miles (Vidal 2011).

The time has come for Shell to face the fact that no oil company can fully justify an environmentalist approach to its branding strategy.

One could argue that, given the fact that Shell are one of the world’s largest corporations, they have a greater responsibility to set a standard for other companies to follow with regards to creating trustworthy, reliable communications.

In an age where the consumer’s concern for the environment has become a highly prominent issue, Shell would benefit from a greater level of transparency in their communications with regards to the actions they are taking to repair the mistakes they have already made. For example, an advertising campaign showing the corporation’s efforts to clean up oil spills in Nigeria would at least help to begin to restore the public’s trust in the corporation and therefore, industry.

4 thoughts on “Shell-shocked – A Theoretical Analysis of The Oil Giant’s Propensity to Greenwash

  1. AhmedEllabib says:

    Don’t all oil and gas companies do this? The general public shouldn’t really allow themselves to be bought by this kind of advertising.

    • edterryrants says:

      Yeah, but Shell take it to the next level in my opinion. BP were always pretty bad but have shut up since the spill. Hence Shell’s decision to have a go at a bit of one upmanship..

  2. I truly appreciate this post. I’ve been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thank you again!

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