How vocal anti-ESG forces are profiting from sustainability policies and funds, while trashing the movement
Greenwash has an insidious new antonym, and it’s on the rise. Let’s call it redwash.
If greenwashing is exaggerating how green you actually are, claiming you’re doing a lot while doing a little, redwashing is the opposite: publicly espousing an anti-sustainability, ESG or climate viewpoint while simultaneously engaging in, or benefitting from, pro-sustainability actions on the ground.
In both greenwashing and redwashing there’s a misalignment between words and deeds. But while greenwashers claim they’re doing more, redwashers claim they’re not adopting sustainability, or are actively opposing it, while actually doing quite a lot. Both benefit politically or financially from the deception.
Take Texas, Georgia and Arizona. The WSJ and Guardian report that these and other “red” states that loudly opposed the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act are now benefitting more than others from the tax credits and other incentives it unlocked, sparking a flood of new investment into clean energy projects in those states.
[See Climate & Capital stories on the IRA’s surge of clean energy deals]
Nine of the top 10 congressional districts with clean energy projects in the pipeline are Republican, and “Republican-held congressional districts harbor 82% by capacity of all utility-scale wind or solar farms and battery-storage projects that are currently in late-stage development,” says the WSJ, mainly because they offer “lower costs for everything from labor and electricity to taxes, as well as looser controls on permitting and the use of land.”
Redwashers, on the other hand, trumpet anti-sustainability and anti-ESG messaging, and mislead the public on how much their districts are benefiting from it.
And yet political leaders of these states are among the most vocal denouncers of sustainability and ESG in America. Prominent redwashers include Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has questioned the dangers of climate change documented by scientists around the world. She told Fox News, “We need to…defund all [the Democrats’] climate garbage.” Taylor Greene’s district is already home to a burgeoning solar industry and is set to benefit from a $2.5 billion investment by solar panel manufacturer Hanwha — triggered by the IRA.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is another celebrity redwasher. Abbott used executive orders and signed high-profile letters aiming to block passage of the IRA.Yet Texas is home to three of the top 10 districts for investments sparked by the IRA. Texas also generates more renewable power than any other in the U.S. and is second only to California in terms of clean energy jobs.
Redwash is different from another term gaining popularity. “Greenhush” is a derivative of greenwash that describes the practice of business leaders quietly making their businesses more sustainable while saying little or nothing about it in public. Greenhushers’ motivations vary. They include fear of failing to meet targets and, in the U.S., fear of attracting backlash from anti-ESG politicians.
Redwashers, on the other hand, trumpet anti-sustainability and anti-ESG messaging, and mislead the public on how much their districts are benefiting from it. This strategy allows redwashers to have their political cake and eat it, too: oppose pro-climate legislation to whip up their constituents, while quietly taking — and taking credit for — the new money, high-paying jobs, and cutting edge industry when the legislation passes.
Taxpayers won’t fully embrace pro-climate policy until they understand that it’s better for their pocketbooks – and redwashers are delaying that reckoning.
Of course, a misalignment between words and deeds is as old as politics itself and isn’t the sole preserve of the political right. Democrats have done a version of this, for example, when they’ve decried defense spending while pushing for big contracts for their constituencies. And in Europe, as Wikipedia notes, where red is associated with the political left, the word “redwashing” has been used to describe the practice of a government, “political party, or company presenting itself as progressive and concerned about social equality and justice…for (political), public relations or economic gain… (with) right-wing politicians (using) the rhetoric of left-wing politics to appeal to voters.”
The insidious impact of redwashing
The current U.S. variety of redwash is especially egregious because with climate change, the stakes for all of humanity are so high. And the destructive impact of today’s redwashing goes far beyond state lines. By denying the economic benefits of pro-climate legislation and business practices, redwashers contribute to the perpetuation of one of the toughest cultural myths hindering progress toward industrial innovation and a healthier and safer low carbon future — that sustainability is bad for business, bad for the economy and bad for taxpayers’ pocketbooks. This myth is at the root of the current Republican-led anti-ESG backlash and intransigence from parts of the global business community on sustainable business practices.
Yet redwashing is flourishing because there has been no accountability or penalty for it.
Of course, not all Republican anti-ESG and sustainability rhetoric is redwash. Gov. Abbott’s actions align perfectly with his anti-IRA and anti-ESG messages. For example, he used legislation to ban state investments in companies that limit oil and gas funding. His state comptroller then banned 10 major banks that he claimed don’t invest enough in oil and gas, even though those banks noted they’ve invested hundreds of millions. On the financial consequences of these decisions, Abbott has not been truthful; these laws are estimated to have cost Texas taxpayers $300 million–$530 million in 2022. This is straight up Green Gaslighting.
The data shows that sustainable investments tend to outperform traditional investments, and that pro-climate policy and clean energy will benefit everyone, regardless of affiliation to political party (or to the truth).
Similarly, U.S. states with political leaders most vocally opposing ESG — Texas, Florida and Louisiana — are also the states hit the hardest by, and racking up the largest bills for, climate-related extreme weather events. The leaders of those states are not being up front with their constituencies about the role climate change is playing in these events, nor about the impact it’s having on their energy and tax bills. Abbott falsely blamed renewables for the Texas power grid failures. Extreme weather, fueled by climate change, cost the U.S. $165 billion in 2022, and these costs are increasing every year. Taxpayers won’t fully embrace pro-climate policy until they understand that it’s better for their pocketbooks — and redwashers are delaying that reckoning.
The data shows that sustainable investments tend to outperform traditional investments, and that pro-climate policy and clean energy will benefit everyone, regardless of affiliation to political party (or to the truth). Redwashers know this, but don’t want to be seen by their constituents as supporting anything that smacks of climate or Democrats. Democrats also know it, which is why President Biden’s carrot-focused IRA and its funding of clean tech in red states might have been more savvy than people realize: because new jobs and investment tends to build local support.
Still, we need to acknowledge the damage being done by both redwashing and greenwashing, and get going on adopting innovative cleantech. If our public discourse becomes further polluted, it will be difficult to impossible to restore public trust in real progress and sustainability-powered economic development.
Solving a problem often begins with naming it. Redwashing.