There are two kinds of greenwashing. The first involves corporations making us believe that their products are environmentally sustainable. It’s what Derren Brown calls misdirection of attention. For instance, if you based your opinion solely on Shell’s publicity material and TV ads – all solar panels, wind turbines and bicycles – you might think it was quite a different company to the one it is. Nor would you guess that only $900m of its annual investment pot of $116bn goes towards renewable energy.
You might think that Shell’s vow to go carbon neutral by 2050 shows how environmentally conscious it is rather than this move being the result of a Dutch court’s ruling this spring ordering the company to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030. You wouldn’t know that Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Authority, recently called on the company to stop drilling for new oilfields, stressing that governments must stop all new oil and gas investments from this year in order to curb global heating.
The second kind of greenwashing is cleverer, and in Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant (Channel 4), the comedian and consumer champion shows how to do it. Shell recently paid Channel 4 to air a TV ad featuring a keen cyclist and eco-friendly inventor called Will, who designs solar panels thanks to Shell. “I think Will is kind of hot,” says Joe. We all do, Joe, but let’s not get distracted. The point is that Shell paid Channel 4 to show this greenwashing ad, and Channel 4 paid Joe Lycett to make a documentary about whether Shell is actually as eco-friendly as it claims to be. “Therefore,” says Lycett, “Shell are paying for this programme. Haha!” If you’re Greta Thunberg, you might think this is ingenious money laundering. If you’re Shell’s CEO, you might worry that the shareholders aren’t going to like this one bit.
I’m in the tricky position of reviewing this programme without knowing which companies advertised their wares during its commercial breaks. I like to think, though, that BP had the nous to buy a spot. The ad would writes itself. “Here at BP we care about the things that matter. That’s why we sponsor the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House. But enough about us. Let’s go back to watching how Shell is destroying the planet.”
Back to Lycett, who has previous in taking on an international brand. Last year, he briefly changed his named by deed poll to Hugo Boss and set up a fake fashion show to expose the firm’s glum policy of issuing cease and desist letters to small businesses for using the word “Boss” in their names. “I’m naturally drawn to questioning authority,” Lycett says. “I think a lot of it is being queer, I suppose … that feeling that the working world and capitalism generally isn’t built for people who are unusual.”
In this show, he decides to make an ad in the style of a Shell promotional video, swapping what Thunberg would doubtless call the “blah, blah, blah” for the foregoing truths about how Shell conducts itself.
But in Britain in 2021, it’s not easy to speak truth to power. The TV ad regulators tell Lycett his commercial cannot be broadcast because it “denigrates” Shell. Lycett looks up what the word means in a dictionary. It means, he says, to criticise unfairly. “But there’s nothing unfair about saying this is what a company does.”
So, instead, he circumvents the TV watchdog by putting the ad on social media. “Nobody watches TV any more apart from you guys,” he adds. In it, a bewigged Lycett impersonates Shell’s CEO, Ben van Beurden, complete with fake poo spewing from his mouth. Did it have to be so unremittingly fecal, Joe? One petrolhead on Twitter calls Lycett “smug, self-serving [and] ignorant”, while the recent unpleasantness at petrol station forecourts does suggest that Lycett is possibly out of step with some of the public mood. Isn’t he just another celebrity detoxing his brand and virtue signalling on somebody else’s dime?
For all that, it’s hard not to admire him for ruffling corporate feathers. As he vomits excrement one last time, I wonder what Channel 4 executives and the new culture secretary Nadine Dorries must be thinking. Isn’t Channel 4’s business model undermined by programmes taking pots shots at its advertisers? And shouldn’t lefty Lycett’s lentil-weaving, tree-hugging programme make Dorries’ beef with the BBC seem like chicken feed?