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Earth Day 2000 Greenwash Sweepstakes: Royal Dutch Shell

Profits and Principles
by Kenny BrunoSpecial to CorpWatch
April 22nd, 2000

Let's give credit where credit is due: When it comes to greenwash, Shell is simply superb.

They've had to be. A pair of 1990's controversies became a public image nightmare for the company. One was the Brent Spar oil rig disposal debate in the North Sea countries. The second was the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni compatriots by the Nigerian military. Shell, which was blamed by Ken Saro-Wiwa for his own impending death, stood by and let this gross violation of human rights occur without criticism. Evidence later emerged showing Shell might have stopped the killings had it tried.

Shell Ad Shell Ad

"Profits & Principles," a glossy booklet, much of it reproduced on the Shell website, attempts to clean up in the aftermath of their scandalous behavior. The writing is clear and flattering. "We care about what you think of us...we will continue to seek your views." They even include an essay with this nugget of truth: "...a sustainable oil company is a contradiction in terms..."

The message is a tempting win-win bargain. "Profits and Principles," is their theme, "does there have to be a choice?" The answer, for Shell, is no. Business can have it both ways.

For example, Shell says its 5-year, $500 million investment in solar, biomass and forestry demonstrates its "commitment to the development of renewables." True, $100 million per year is more than most companies have available. But it's a tiny portion - less than 1% - of Shell's overall budget, and far less than their investments in oil and gas. Shell's self-fulfilling position is that it must keep searching for more fossil fuels because oil is still the cheapest and most convenient energy source. Profits or Principles? Both, of course.

In the human rights realm, Shell's Johnny-come-lately devotion reeks of hypocrisy. The years of complicity with apartheid are conveniently forgotten; Shell points to its support for political prisoners. After years of environmental destruction and suppression of basic freedoms in Nigeria, Shell has the gall to boast of its commitment to human rights, even pointing to Nigeria as an example, and showing a picture of a pro-Ogoni protest in London. This is the greenwash technique of blatantly co-opting your critics' message, adapted for the issue of human rights.

Responsibility? Accountability? Shell, like any company, will use any maneuver to avoid lawsuits regarding its role in Nigeria. It has never admitted any wrongdoing, and has not been held accountable for the tragedies in which it participated. This is the essence of greenwash. Hold your adversaries at bay with clever rhetoric, but avoid paying the price for your mistakes. After all, profit, as well as principle, is at stake.

We award Chairman Mark Moody-Stuart the complete collection of Ken Saro-Wiwa's writings.