As more companies go quiet about greenness, many people are still distracted from the real issue

Social media content creators are hesitant about producing sustainability material due to the backlash risk

Stanley, the American manufacturer of vacuum flasks, seems an unlikely candidate to cause riots among fashionable women desperate to grab one of its products before they sell out.

Yet the brand, usually associated with older, outdoorsy men, has seen huge success among a different demographic with its Quencher tumbler, a 1.2 litre insulated cup. A viral marketing campaign headed by influencers has seen Stanley cups become a social media sensation. Pastel colours, tie-ins with major brands such as Starbucks, and hundreds of millions of TikTok views are a far cry from the staid, dependable, muted green camping equipment that Stanley conjures in my mind.

But Stanley products are also a mainstay of Buy It For Life, the Reddit community that prioritises buying durable goods that will stand the test of time. Many of those, like Stanley, have lifetime warranties. A favourite Buy It For Life brand selling multiple €50 cups to the same person seems somewhat incongruous, the undeniable eco-credentials of a sustainable product in tension with conspicuous consumption.

Social media influencers often promote fast fashion from brands such as Temu, Shein and Wish that trade on low price and disposability. This might explain why Stanley don’t lead with sustainability when promoting their cups – it doesn’t normally factor into the desirability of the product. In fact, firms seem increasingly wary about broadcasting their environmental ambitions, a trend dubbed greenhushing. This is a nod to greenwashing, where a company portrays itself or its products as more environmentally conscious than they actually are.


Fears about being cancelled are usually overblown, but it is understandable that a company marketing to a social media demographic could be cautious. Perhaps stung by criticism in 2022 that its own green agenda were overblown, consumer goods manufacturer Unilever commissioned research showing that social media content creators were hesitant about producing sustainability material due to possible backlash.

Regulators have recently tackled dubious sustainability claims. In 2020, European Commission research found that more than half of environmental claims investigated were “vague, misleading or unfounded”. A Green Claims directive, introduced last year, will now require firms to support any environmental claims made with robust evidence. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency has banned adverts from brands as diverse as HSBC, Ryanair and Oatly for creating or implying a misleading view of their ecofriendliness.

Exaggerated claims, emphasising relatively minor initiatives to distract from environmentally damaging activity, and using green imagery to understate environmental impact are all commonplace. But their very existence reflects a general acceptance that the environment must be protected and that damaging it is morally wrong. At the far end of the scale, petrostates even hold climate conferences or use sport to launder their reputations.

Perhaps the most insidious form of greenwashing is narrative control. Having learned from the tobacco industry, fossil fuel giants have expanded significant effort on reframing climate action away from science, policy and collective action to questions of consumer choice and individual responsibility.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even as their internal documents referred to fossil fuel emissions and global warming, public-facing material talked about greenhouse gases and the risk of global warming. The aim was to weaken the causal link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change.

One of the most commonplace sustainability concepts, the carbon footprint, was promoted by BP. In 2004, the oil giant engaged public relations firm Ogilvy and Mather to popularise the concept and shift the burden of responsibility to consumers. They developed an online carbon footprint calculator that allowed users to estimate their own contribution to climate change through their actions. This concept was one factor in my decision to stop eating meat the following year, and by 2007 it was so ingrained in the popular consciousness that carbon footprint was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year.

In that sense, the backlash against greenwashing is welcome, because it represents consumers placing the onus back on firms to be authentic in their environmental commitments. Yet greenhushing demonstrates how successfully the fossil fuel industry has manipulated sustainability narratives.

As long as Stanley cups are reused across their lifetime rather than ending up in landfill or collecting dust en masse in a cupboard, it’s better that influencers are promoting them than fast fashion. But quibbling about consumption shouldn’t distract us from the fact that many of the most significant contributors to a carbon footprint, like how our electricity is generated, are beyond individual control.

Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow in the school of history and geography at Dublin City University

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