My friend the greenwasher

Sometimes the best people commit the worst offenses.

Hi. I know you’re busy, but I need you to get to the end of this newsletter. In the hopes of making that happen, here’s an outline of this note. Read whatever tickles your toes, but please please pretty please get to Section 3:

  1. A captivating anecdote with a poignant message

  2. How that anecdote connects to meaningful climate action 

  3. Something really important that I need you to do. It will only take five minutes I PROMISE

So if you only have five minutes for one5c today, no problem. Please skip to Section 3. 👉After you share this newsletter with everyone you know.👈 

The anecdote 

The other day I was mindlessly brain-snorting my social feeds and saw a post from a friend. Yay! Friend! Not just a meme! Consuuuuuuume.

This friend, a genuinely good person whom I won’t namecheck because I don’t want to fire an internet missile at someone I care about, is pretty high profile—especially considering they hang out with me. Their post was the most insidious greenwash that I’ve seen on my feed in a long time. At first it read like just another earnest yarn from their ongoing home renovation, but something about it bothered me: an undercurrent of fear. 

Paraphrasing: I rely on propane because it allows me to keep my family safe and warm at my country house and it powers all my cool stuff. Then a bunch of pictures: them posing with their propane furnace (🤷‍♂️), the stove in their beautiful kitchen; a giant propane tank, their swimming pool; a propane-powered generator, their outdoor kitchen. It was a balletic cause-and-effect counterbalance of hydrocarbons and luxury.  

Then, at the end of the post: #partner and a these are good people shoutout to the Propane Education and Research Council. This is a trade organization that the New York Times recently exposed as using influencers (like my friend) in a high-dollar propaganda salvo against the transition to renewable energy. Smells like bought-and-paid-for greenwash. 

“A propane tank with a bouquet of flowers growing out of it.” Made with the Dall-E Image Generator.

Meanwhile, followers gobbled it up: 


Thank you for sharing.

Great post

Clappy hands emojis

I’m not going to get too sanctimonious here. Battery backups and heat pump systems aren’t cheap. I get that.

But the way we tell stories matters. Telling nearly 100,000 people that ‘I, a noteworthy person, can only afford to live my way and keep my home safe because of propane’ is a very powerful message. It says that fossil fuels are actually fine—maybe even admirable—because electrification is out of reach even for famous people. It creates a mindset of approval for a technology that is doing far more harm than a burst pipe or an uncomfortable swimming pool. 

I don’t begrudge my friend their creature comforts or lifestyle, but if you were one of their followers, you might come away from that post feeling as though electrification were far away and full of risk. Neither is true.

This is a narrative that the oil and gas industry has been pushing hard [PDF] lately [barfy greenwash]. The aim is to stoke fear about the transition to renewable energy. And even though my friend’s social post is not even close to the most egregious example, it’s a powerful advancement of this narrative because of how sincere it presents. 

Keep an eye out for this bullshit, because it’s everywhere right now. 

How this connects to climate action 

It may sound like a small change, but how we talk about stuff makes a big difference. It’s a decision to not accept the oil and gas industry’s worldview. Instead of praising fossil fuel’s place in our energy portfolio or resigning ourselves to burning gas to maintain our lifestyles, we need to talk and think about it as something we’re trying to quit. You will be surprised by the impact this has—both inside your mind and outside of your mouth.

Propane is a byproduct of both gasoline production and hydrofracking, so it’s a lucrative product from the same companies who have been lying to us about our stoves for 50 years. And like any other gas, it’s a consumable resource that those companies want you dependent on. If you need to continually purchase their stuff to cook and stay warm, you’re going to keep giving them money. 

PERC, the special interest group that likely paid for my friend’s social post, collects half a cent for every gallon of propane sold in the U.S., so its very existence depends on us burning hydrocarbons. The transition away from fossil fuels will be disastrous for that organization.

Sounds familiar, right? To me, it reads like a chapter from the Purdue Pharma playbook: Get people hooked on a dangerous substance with deceptive marketing. Make the stuff appear life-enhancing. Sounds a lot like cigarettes, too.

Like Big Pharma and the Tobacco Industry, oil and gas interest groups try not to get sued by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading advertising. Some of the language in my friend’s post looks to me like it was lawyered, probably by PERC’s attorneys—the FTC regulates how influencers can talk about products when money’s involved. 

To do this, the FTC applies what it calls “truth-in-advertising” standards; the agency maintains and periodically updates these standards in several categories, from health and wellness to kids’ stuff to, yup, environmental marketing. The last time the environmental marketing standards were updated was 2012. Before the Paris Accords. 

You might think it’s ludicrous that these guidelines have been static for so long (I do), but “that is the tradition, that every ten years these guides go through a review,” says John Kostyack, principal of Kostyack Strategies, a consultancy focused on climate policy. He’s currently working with the Sierra Club on a letter to the FTC about… environmental marketing guidelines. Because guess what time it is.

At the end of last year, the FTC announced it was revising its Green Guides—10 years, like Kostyack said—and that it was seeking public comment. This call for comment specifically identifies a handful of issues that the agency is eyeing as hot topics—like recycling. But, interestingly, it does not list misleading claims about the sustainability of fossil fuels; the current guides and their associated materials don’t directly address them either. 

The Green Guides aren’t law, so you and I can’t sue someone for going against their recommendations. But they do lay out what the FTC defines as misleading, and if a company runs afoul of these Guides, that could give the agency a reason to take action under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. “The FTC has a pretty powerful stick,” says Kostyack. “They can file cases and they can impose fines.” He also notes that the FTC invited comment on whether they should go beyond just the Green Guides and create regulations. 

So yes, we’re going to send letters to the FTC. I made this so easy, you’re gonna want to get your friends to play too.

Submit a comment to the FTC

I tried to make this super simple, because as many of us as possible need to submit comments. All you have to do is copy and paste the form letter below into a comment field on a website. I spoke to a lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission, and she assured me that every comment will be read, and that we have until April 24th to submit comments.

Also, just in case you think I’m winging it here, I ran this form letter by several very accomplished consumer advocacy and sustainability experts. It’s frickin’ on-point. Hit it:

Step 1.

Write a sentence or two about a purchasing decision you made that was influenced by environmental marketing.

Here’s mine: In July of 2022, I converted my HVAC system to Mitsubishi Hyper Heat air-source heat pumps because I wanted to stop burning fossil fuels in my home.

You can do this. It’s easy. You could talk about the EV or paper sandwich bags you just bought. You could rage against the biodegradable plastic wrap you purchased—because you later learned that it’s actually made of petroleum. All fair game.

If there’s a situation in which you feel you were misled, please share it. But all that matters is showing the FTC that the environment matters to you, American Consumer. The whole reason this agency exists is to keep you from getting swindled. 

Step 2.

Open this website. It’s the Federal Register, and it’s the only place online from which the FTC is accepting comments. I know this because I called them and asked. 

Step 3.

Copy and paste this letter into the “Comment” field. Don’t hit submit yet!

To whom it may concern,

Thank you for the work you are doing to update the FTC Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. Like many consumers, I am concerned about the wellbeing of our planet, and environmental impact plays a large role in my purchasing decisions. 

[1 to 2 sentences about a specific purchase you recently made, where environmental considerations impacted your decision.]

I am submitting this comment because I rely on the FTC to protect me from companies making misleading claims about the sustainability of their products or services. 

I am asking that the FTC strictly limit a company’s ability to use blanket terms such as sustainable, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, and so on, when they describe their products—unless they are able to provide objective data that backs up their claims. I would also ask that the FTC limit fossil fuel companies’ ability to portray their products as environmentally beneficial, because all evidence points to the contrary. 

I am glad your agency is taking these steps to combat the growing threat of greenwashing, but I urge you to go further and create binding regulations and enforce strict penalties for companies that deceive consumers in this way. 


[your name]  

Step 4. Paste your purchasing decision anecdote from Step 1. into the form letter. Write your name where it says [your name]. 🙂

Step 5. Enter your name in the fields below the comment form and hit “Submit Comment.” You can give them your email address if you want. The FTC lawyer I spoke with told me that they are only using the email addresses in case they have questions, but I can understand anyone who is apprehensive about that.

** It says the deadline is February 21st, but they extended the comment period until April 24th**

That is it. That’s all you have to do—and it’s a really big deal.

As for me, I have a phone call to make. I need to talk to my friend and understand where they were coming from when they made that post. The greenwash was bad, but the friend is good, and maybe I can get them to submit a comment, too. After all, those propane ghouls sold them on a serious line of bullshit.

Take care of yourself—and the rest of us, too.