Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


In the face of the climate crisis, people are increasingly interested in more sustainable and eco-conscious alternatives to fossil fuels. As a result, companies associated with fossil fuel industries are under pressure to conform to this trend among consumers by marketing themselves as leaders in developing sustainable alternatives. However, instead of changing their practices in an effort to mitigate climate change, some companies only promote the appearance of change by engaging in “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is defined as the “practice of misleading people to believe that a company is engaging in virtuous practices so as to cover up poor practices” or relying on appearances instead of reality; i.e., relying on good marketing instead of actual change.

This comment will explore the implications of these cases with respect to a key difference between Big Oil and Big Tobacco, which is that, unlike tobacco, many aspects of our society still depend on oil and gas. Responsible advertising, like that which helped curtail the use and sales of cigarettes, may not be as effective when it comes to oil. Many people still have little personal choice as to whether to participate in the oil economy because they rely on oil for fueling cars and homes and many other uses. Therefore, in order to be effective in the fight against climate change, an injunction prohibiting Exxon’s greenwashing should be paired with government efforts to develop alternatives to petroleum products that will give consumers a real choice. Alternatives can include increasing access to greener transportation such as electric vehicles, as well as public transit and active travel.

This comment begins with an overview of the deceptive advertising practices that were used by the tobacco industry and those used more recently by the oil and gas industry, focusing on Exxon in particular. It then takes a closer look at the relief sought in these cases and considers how the differences between these industries might limit the effectiveness of restricting greenwashing. Finally, the comment recommends additional government actions to enhance the impact of the current lawsuits in addressing climate change.