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In this climate, you might wonder whether it’s still possible for companies to tout a “green” message at all. Maybe it’s dead.Photograph by Florida Sea Grant / Flickr

In his modestly titled 2010 book Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir From a Visionary Leader, John Browne, the former CEO of Beyond Petroleum (BP for short), recounted the company’s triumphs after he took the reins in 1995. “BP went on to reshape the oil industry, be at the forefront of global investment, achieve many firsts and change views on the environment and corporate social responsibility,” he wrote. A mere two months later—the book was published in February—that all burst into flames.

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The Deepwater Horizon oil facility explosion, often called the worst environmental disaster in United States history, claimed 11 lives and spilled millions of oil barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating marine ecosystems that have yet to recover. After the spill, BP took a hit: Its market value plunged by more than 50 percent, and sales dropped. But the bad spell didn’t last; according to one study, consumers stopped punishing BP a mere four months later, and by 2011, reports indicated that the company was beginning to “bounce back.” Despite agreeing, in 2015, to pay $20 billion in fines for the disaster, the company claims it’s expecting to have a positive cash flow by 2018.

Some experts argue that its eco-friendly advertising prior to the catastrophe—its green-and-yellow sunburst logo, its rebranding from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum,” its targeted clean-energy campaign—helped BP weather the ensuing PR fiasco; others posit that BP’s environmentally conscious posture only worsened what might have otherwise been a smaller blow to its business. Either way, the kind of sustainability messaging BP, and countless other companies, had engaged in before would no longer do. Since the spill, consumers have continued to demand green products and services, but research shows that now they’re far more cynical about eco-friendly messaging. That leaves corporations in a bind: It seems they can’t do away with mentioning their sustainability bona fides, lest they appear indifferent or worse to the environment; but if they communicate them in the wrong way, they can end up undermining their reputation.

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“Greenwashing is just your ecological equivalent to crony capitalism.”

In this climate, you might wonder whether it’s still possible for companies to tout a “green” message at all. Maybe it’s dead. Appearing too earnest can risk observers becoming suspicious of an eco-campaign’s sincerity, but failing to make any sort of visible effort can also look bad. How do you signal authenticity reliably? Behavior scientists, sociologists, and ethicists have begun to examine the role these impressions of authenticity play when it comes to so-called “responsible consumption”—where people choose to support those companies that adopt humane and eco-friendly policies, and so influence their policy decisions.

According to Andrew Crane, a professor of business ethics at the University of Bath, in England, we, the public, have made striking that authentic tone harder. He says we’ve nursed a high degree of skepticism toward corporate “green” claims since the 1990s, when the media and N.G.O. watchdogs exposed many of them as unrealistic or spurious. “Now, even when companies get to a position of relative trust with their audience,” Crane says, “it’s very easy for that to be broken, because there isn’t a bedrock of institutional trust in corporations anymore.” As a result, our first instinct is to be wary. It’s up to the company to persuade us otherwise. “The challenge,” Crane says, “is to be able to speak in a way that’s factually convincing but also authentic in its tone.”

The motive a company communicates to the public is key, says Gerdien de Vries, a behavioral scientist at Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. In a 2013 study, she told subjects about a fictional gas company that had decided to invest in carbon dioxide capture-and-storage technology. They heard one of three rationales for the investment: There was either no apparent motive, an environmental motive, or an economic motive. The level of perceived “greenwashing”—when companies “deliberately frame” their actions as pro-environment merely to appear that way—was equally high in the first two cases, but significantly lower when the explanation was described as a business strategy. People are, in other words, ironically more inclined to believe the sincerity of a company investing in a green initiative to ostensibly maximize profits, or boost its public image, than to serve the public or protect the environment.

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Claiming an altruistic motive can sound sanctimonious, de Vries says, which can open the door to impressions of greenwashing. “People feel manipulated either way. But they can accept that oil and gas companies frame their messages because of commercial or economic reasons. Positive framing as good for the environment, on the other hand, could lead to resistant behavior.”

Companies such as the consumer-products giant Unilever and the outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia, Crane says, have been more successful in their messaging than other corporations (see Nestlé’s initial reaction to the viral Greenpeace campaign against its Kit Kat brand in 2010) because of their transparency. “They’re not saying, ‘Here’s how we solve this problem, trust us because we’ve dealt with this, we have 100-percent-certifiable sweatshop-free production.’ No, they say, ‘These are the challenges we face, here’s how we’re going about it, here’s the risk.’ The public responds positively to this two-sided discussion. They’re not expecting companies not to have problems. They don’t want perfection. They just want to see movement in the right direction.”

C. B. Bhattacharya, the Pietro Ferrero Chair in Sustainability at the European School of Management and Technology, in Berlin, agrees. “If stakeholders perceive you’re in it just for the PR, there will be a negative backlash,” he says. Patagonia’s popular environmentalist co-founder, Yvon Chouinard, seems to get this. He’s been very upfront concerning his doubts on being too visibly pro-environment. He’s said, “I’ve become cynical about whether we can have any influence”—“we” being the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, “a consortium of big retailers, like Walmart, Macy’s, and the Gap, which, among other things, is now devising a system to give a sustainability grade to every purchasable product,” according to The New Yorker. “Everyone’s just greenwashing,” Chouinard told the magazine last year. He seems convinced that even if a company really is eco-friendly, it doesn’t help for it to say so, since so many companies adopt similar messaging but don’t follow through. The public’s default stance, as a result, is to be skeptical of such claims.

If a business has “stockpiled” enough goodwill, though, it may be resilient in the face of a blunder or negative discovery—that is, unless it acts detrimentally in the same area in which it initially generated its goodwill. In that case, Bhattacharya says, “the dis-identification that follows can be stronger than the original identification.” Take Volkswagen’s recent emissions scandal. Having built up an environmentally conscious reputation, the automaker’s credibility took an even greater hit, when news of its emissions deception broke, than it otherwise might have if the scandal had been unrelated to its environmental policies.

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Markus Giesler, a professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, in Toronto, thinks the Volkswagen case just highlights the failure of green messaging. “It’s true that some companies manage to tell a story of corporate social responsibility more convincingly than others,” but “when you look at the aggregated data,” having better story-tellers hasn’t made corporations more socially responsible, he says. They’re just better at appearing that way while maybe behaving worse. “Even the companies that are operating most authentically are in some sense greenwashing,” he says, “because we’re all greenwashing each other. Greenwashing is just your ecological equivalent to crony capitalism.”

Jordana Cepelewicz is an editorial fellow at Nautilus.

WATCH: The philanthropist Greg Carr on whether economic development can be eco-friendly.

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