What is greenwashing and how does it impact cycling?
According to the Cambridge dictionary, greenwashing is “making people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it actually does”.
Greenwashing has become so widespread that in January 2021 the UK Competition and Markets Authority found that 40% of companies’ green claims could be misleading and published a code of green claims in an attempt to mitigate some of this greenwashing.
The bicycle industry is particularly vulnerable to greenwashing, not least because it presents itself as being at the forefront of moving away from carbon-emitting passenger vehicles and as a way to reduce both air pollution and sound.
However, this means that the sport is open to companies that leverage this image for their own benefit, especially on the international stage where the potential to influence millions of people is enormous.
Examples of accusations of greenwashing in cycling include the recently announced partnership between British Cycling and Shell and WorldTour teams sponsored by oil and gas companies, such as Ineos Grenadiers, Total Energies and Uno X.
Partnership between British Cycling and Shell
Since British Cycling announced its partnership with Shell UK in October this year, it has been accused of facilitating greenwashing.
Shell is a multinational oil and gas giant, and the eight-year deal was positioned as a way to help the cycling body accelerate its path to net zero.
Like many other major energy companies, Shell has diversified its portfolio to include renewables. It also works to improve the UK’s energy security and has pledged to reach net zero by 2050.
Shell UK, which operates the country’s largest public network of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, says it will support British Cycling’s aim to move to an all-EV fleet.
However, there is no escaping the irony of eco-friendly cycling sponsored by a fossil fuel company.
And it’s worth noting that for all its talk of a greener future, Shell still focuses the majority of its resources on non-renewables. A recent Channel 4 report found that Shell’s investments in oil and gas in the first half of 2022 were further dwarfed by those it had made in renewables.
“The idea that Shell is helping British Cycling get to net zero is as absurd as cattle farmers advising lettuce growers on how to go vegan,” said Greenpeace UK policy director Dr. Doug Parr, in response to the ad.
But according to Chris Hoy, the accusations of greenwashing are not as clear cut as claimed.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the management of British Cycling. They need a sponsor, they need a partner. In the current climate, trying to find a major sponsor for a year, let alone eight years, is a tall order,” explained Hoy, in an interview with JJ Chalmers at the recent Track World Championships.
“It’s not just about elite sport and the national team, it’s about representing the views of the whole membership and putting cycling on the agenda with a huge company like Shell. If you can get them to change their policy even slightly, then that’s a positive thing.
Hoy scores a point. It could be argued that British Cycling can use this partnership to put cycling on the agenda with Shell, but again that entirely depends on whether Shell actually cares about cycling, which remains to be seen.
It’s also worth noting that Shell are official partners, not primary or prime partners like HSBC or Sky.
Ineos is an oil, gas and petrochemical conglomerate and sponsors the cycling team called Ineos Grenadiers.
The team, previously called simply Ineos, is now named after the 2,700kg Grenadier 4×4 SUV, a retro-modern vehicle powered by a choice of 3-litre petrol or diesel engines.
The Grenadier is Ineos CEO Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s pet project to replace the now discontinued classic Land Rover Defender.
Ineos is one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals and petroleum products and its hydraulic fracturing exploration business is called Ineos Shale.
Fracking, a way to recover gas and oil from shale rock, is hugely controversial and has been banned in the UK since 2019 due to its potential environmental consequences, including serious impacts on water supplies , air pollution, earthquakes and public health risks.
However, ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss overturned that ban in September this year and Ineos offered to drill “for free” to prove fracking was safe. Since Truss’ departure, the British government has again banned hydraulic fracturing.
In a report by the New Weather Institute (opens pdf), climate charity Possible and the Rapid Transition Alliance, which identified advertising and sponsorship deals with major polluters in 13 different sports, including cycling, Ineos figure 76 times.
When Ineos took over Team Sky, the outcry was similar to that of the British Cycling/Shell partnership. Social media exploded and an anti-fracking group even protested at the Tour de Yorkshire. His sponsorship of the professional cycling team has been denounced as greenwashing.
But the cycling team undoubtedly benefits from funding from the fossil fuel company – the team is said to have an annual budget of 50 million euros.
The TotalEnergies team
The France-based professional cycling team has been sponsored by TotalEnergies since 2016.
TotalEnergies is one of the major oil companies, covering the entire oil and gas chain, from crude oil to the exploration and refining of natural gas.
It used to be called Total, but changed its name to TotalEnergies in a move widely seen as an attempt to distance itself from being solely fossil fuel focused.
The company is no stranger to accusations of greenwashing.
In March 2022 it was sued for misleading advertising and accused of greenwashing and more recently faces charges of grossly understating its carbon emissions as scrutiny intensifies over how the he oil and gas industry is reporting on climate change goals.
A study by Greenpeace estimates that the company’s total carbon emissions from 2019 could be almost four times what it found, or around 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2.
Much like with Ineos, TotalEnergies’ sponsorship of a professional cycling team was seen as the company using sport to position itself as environmentally conscious when its business operations offer a very different reality.
Credit: Luc Claessen via Getty Images
Uno-X is a Norwegian fuel and energy company that owns a chain of self-service filling stations throughout Norway and Denmark.
The company is owned by Reitan, a conglomerate that owns several Danish and Norwegian companies, and is a major player in both markets.
He created the men’s continental team in 2017, which was later upgraded to a pro team in 2020, and has since launched a women’s team.
On the Uno-X Pro Cycling Team website, the company openly admits that sponsoring their team has been a valuable marketing strategy: “Cycling, being an immensely popular sport – both in our two countries of origin and abroad – has brought great added value added value to our brand as part of our market strategy.
Much like with Ineos and TotalEnergies, the creation of an Uno-X cycling team raises the question of whether the company is using cycling to create a greener image for itself.
What do greenwashing charges mean for cycling?
Credit: Thomas Samson via Getty
When fossil fuel companies are so intertwined with cycling, as we have seen, and accusations of greenwashing multiply, the sport’s image as environmentally friendly and conscious becomes blurred.
It’s clear that British Cycling needs money and cycling teams need sponsors, but where should we draw the line? Or is there even a line to draw?
Is it okay to be funded by a fossil fuel giant in order to use that funding to promote cycling and thus arguably serve the greater good in the long run? Or does it put profit before the planet?
And above all, are there other options?
Regardless of the answers, it is obvious that not all that glitters is green.
Do you care about the planet? Read our guide to sustainable cycling kit brands
Main image: Anne-Christine Poujoulat via Getty