Greenwashing

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“Greenwashing” refers to the practice used by controversial industries to market their goods and/or image as environmentally friendly1 in an effort to increase product sales and divert public attention from their own environmentally damaging practices.2 Reporting environmental impact and funding environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects and organisations, serves to “greenwash” tobacco companies, and detract from the harms the industry inflicts on the environment and environmental health.

Background

In the summer of 1999, nearly a decade after it was first used by environmental activists, the term “greenwash” entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary, defined as: “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”.3

The first report on “greenwashing” gave the following examples as illustration: “A leader in ozone destruction takes credit for being a leader in ozone protection. A giant oil company professes totake a ‘precautionary approach’ to global warming…Another giant multinational cuts timber from virgin rainforest, replaces it with monoculture plantations and calls the project ‘sustainable forest development’”.4

In the decades since, greenwashing has been employed by most polluting or controversial industries, including oil, chemicals, and nuclear energy.2 The tobacco industry has historically greenwashed its reputation and products through programmes such as beach clean-ups,5marketing of new products as “eco-friendly”6 and funding environmental and disaster-relief organisations,7 especially in low and middle income countries (LMICs), as the examples below illustrate. As consumers have grown to care more about corporate environmental performance, and choose more sustainable products,8 corporations including the tobacco industry have made environmental sustainability an integral pillar of their corporate social responsibility (CSR)/corporate social investment (CSI) strategies.

  • More information on CSR as a tobacco industry tactic can be found on our page CSR Strategy.

From the early 2000s, the industry started pushing its CSR and greenwashing message. For example, in the introduction to British American Tobacco (BAT)’s “Social Report” in 2002/2003, the company Chairman, Sir Martin Broughton, said “Corporate social responsibility is integral to our approach to the management of our businesses globally”.910 Critics were quick to point out the dichotomy and hypocrisy of this statement. A report by ASH, Christian Aid and Friends of the Earth argued that “British American Tobacco, while trying hard to convince shareholders and government otherwise, flies the flag for corporate social irresponsibility”. If nothing else, the report argued, BAT’s cigarette’s “kill smokers”.11 Since 2009, BAT has published annual “Sustainability Reports” on its website.12 In an investor presentation in March 2020, BAT executives highlighted the importance of sustainability and sustainable messaging to consumers. The presentation detailed how BAT plans to put sustainability “front and centre”, including the targets of achieving carbon neutrality and 50 million non-combustible consumers by 2030 (Image 1). Sustainability appears to be a key part of BAT’s spring 2020 rebranding, which saw the company tagline change to “BAT: A Better Tomorrow”, accompanied by a new logo and rainbow-themed website. “Sustainability” also appears as one of the five featured headers on the top menu bar (Image 2).

Three slides from a British American Tobacco corporate presentation emphasising the importance of Sustainbility to its business vision. Top left slide (1) reads "Our ESG Mission: A business where sustainability has always been important, to one where it is front and centre in all that we do". Bottom left slide (2) reads "Big Ambitions for the future: "50 million non-combustibel consumers by 2030; Carbon neutral by 2030". Right (3) reads "Putting sustainability front and centre: (H) Reducing the HEALTH impact of our business; (E) Excellence in ENVIRONMENTAL management; (S) Delivering a positive SOCIAL impact; and (G) Robust corporate GOVERNANCE".
Image 1: Three slides relating to sustainability from British American Tobacco’s March 2020 Capital Markets Day.13
A screenshot of the British American Tobacco website, taken in March 2020. The website is rainbow themed and has new logo. A yellow box emphasises the presence of a "Sustainability" tab in the top menu header.
Image 2: The re-designed British American Tobacco website. Note that “Sustainability” appears in the top menu bar (emphasis added).14

Since the 1950s, when the connection between smoking and negative health effects was first made, tobacco companies have made significant investments in CSR campaigns. They have also used environmental impact disclosure processes and sustainability awards from external bodies to try to create a sense of legitimacy and present their industry as socially and environmentally friendly. However, tobacco companies have maintained the same harmful framing and production practices. Tobacco companies save considerable amounts of money by not having to pay the full cost of the environmental impact of tobacco cultivation, product manufacturing or cleaning up post-consumer waste. The amount of money companies make while using harmful practices involved in their supply chain, such as child labour and deforestation, dwarfs the amount they spend on sustainability CSR projects.15

A 2013 collaborative study between TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) for Business, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, and TruCost (the risk assessor arm of S&P Global) found that if major industries were held financially accountable for their, currently unaccounted, environmental impacts, they would not be profitable.1617

In addition to avoiding full financial responsibility for the environmental impact of their business, tobacco companies are able to enhance their reputations and minimise harms through existing environmental impact disclosure organisations and practices.

Environmental impact disclosure

Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) are eager to position themselves as responsible corporations who care about the environmental sustainability of their products. Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT), for example, both state that reducing the environmental impact of their operations is a key part of their visions for corporate sustainability.518 Company sustainability reports feature awards and recognitions from organisations such as the Carbon Disclosure Project and Alliance for Water Stewardship in places of prominence.518719 All of the ‘big four’ TTCs (BAT, PMI, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands) and Altria have been rated “A”, the highest possible rating, across various indices by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a not-for-profit independent index since 2003, for climate change, water, or forests.1520 Tobacco companies have also been included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), which ranks top-performing companies across industries by sustainability performance.21

Problem of legitimation

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and other environmental rankings, featured prominently in the 2018 sustainability reports of each of the ‘big four’ tobacco companies.185722 Until it was expelled in September 2017, the tobacco industry also participated in the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a voluntary sustainability pact to encourage sustainable business practices and reporting.23 In 2016, for the last UNGC at which the tobacco industry was allowed to participate, Philip Morris International (PMI) authored a brief entitled “Communication on Progress”. The brief, as Image 3 illustrates, minimized the amount of water needed to produce tobacco by comparing it with the amounts necessary to produce tea or chocolate, per weight of finished product.24

An infographic from a Philip Morris International presentation prepared for the 2016 meeting of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) showing water droplets of relative sizes of industry water use between chocolate, tea and tobacco. The tobacco droplet is the smallest.
Image 3: This infographic authored by Philip Morris International emphasises the relative size of chocolate, tea and tobacco industries water use.24

As the World Health Organization (WHO) noted, “PMI’s comparison attempts to put tobacco on par with these other products, ignoring the differentiator that these other products do not kill one in two of their daily users, as tobacco does”.25 The CDP draws a similar conclusion in its reports on corporate environmental disclosure: “industries tend to deemphasise severity of own transgressions and disagree over what constitutes a ‘significant environmental health’ issue.”26

Participation in the CDP, DJSI, and UN Global Compact (UNGP) may lead to companies disclosing more environmental information, but it also supports the legitimisation of the tobacco industry, allowing companies “to be seen more as ‘partners’ in public health and environmental sustainability than their deserved reputation as sullying both”.17 The public and investors may see inclusion on sustainability leader boards as endorsements of companies’ environmental credentials.15

Mandated reporting by governments can limit the opportunity for “trading data for legitimacy”.17 In Brazil and Canada, for example, tobacco companies are required to disclose manufacturing practices, product ingredients, toxic constituents and toxic emissions to national health services. In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) has the power to impose fines on companies that are not in compliance with tobacco control regulations.27

Problem of voluntary standards

Because environmental impact disclosure is generally voluntary, companies can set their own standards for disclosure. Voluntary disclosure results in environmental impact data that is vague, unclear and inconsistent in its coverage and methodologies.17 This creates several problems.

Firstly, there is no industry-wide standardised format that disclosed data must follow. This makes it difficult for researchers and external evaluators to track progress over time or make comparisons between companies. Though PMI, BAT and JTI all release yearly sustainability reports,5187 Imperial Brands and the Altria Group only release short summaries on their websites and include minimal information on environmental impact in their annual reports.2228

Secondly, a lack of standards leads to the creation of new units of measurement that can obscure the true scale of environmental impact. By 2018, for example, tobacco companies reported environmental impact data in units known as “intensity”.17 “Intensity” refers to units environmental cost per net revenue (e.g. tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per GBP£ million net revenue from smoked and vapour products).22 By reporting environmental costs in this way, tobacco companies are able to obscure year-on-year rise in resource consumption as product volume rises.17 For example, even as the environmental harm per cigarette decreases, the total volume of cigarettes produced rises, and therefore so does the total environmental impact.

Third, companies are free to set environmental goals to whatever level they like and choose to disclose on topics that portray their practices in the best light. In 2017, after BAT-owned leaf suppliers exceeded the company’s global target of 1.5kg chemicals per hectare , BAT announced it “would no longer have a global average target”.29 It now discloses no data on the usage of agrochemicals in its leaf cultivation operations.18 This strategy also applies to external disclosure: BAT, JTI and Imperial Brands have all opted out of CDP Forestry reporting after receiving “F” ratings on disclosure and impact in 2017 (BAT,30 JTI31) and 2019 (Imperial32).

Finally, companies are not required to take responsibility for all environmental impacts associated with the life cycle of their products. Tobacco companies have long placed the responsibility for the disposal of cigarette butts on the shoulders of consumers and local government.33 Through the CDP’s Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration, companies can encourage their suppliers to disclose their environmental impact data to CDP.34 Tobacco companies have participated in this programme since 2007.15 PMI, BAT, JTI and Imperial Brands all appear on the CDP Supplier Engagement Leaderboard,26 a fact which they all promote in their sustainability reports. However, these same companies do not always account for “Scope 3” emissions in their sustainability reporting.35 Scope 3 emissions include “indirect” emissions from independent suppliers in the company’s supply chain, purchased goods and services and capital goods.17 Tobacco companies can thus exclude water used by contracted tobacco suppliers, for example, from their total reported water usages.

Sustainability corporate social responsibility programmes

Tobacco companies implement a variety of environment/sustainability-themed corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes across the world in order to enhance their corporate image. As with disclosure and sustainability awards, tobacco companies use CSR programmes around sustainability to pre-empt regulation and influence policymakers.3637 The cases below detail where tobacco companies have implemented CSR programmes on this topic and the organisations with which they collaborate in greenwashing efforts.

Global tobacco industry-funded programmes

On both a global and regional level, individual tobacco companies often fund the same organisations. The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation was co-founded in 2000 by British American Tobacco (BAT) and its front group, the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA), in response to criticism over the incorporation of child labour in its leaf supply chain in Malawi and elsewhere.38 All big four tobacco companies have since joined.39 Until 2019, ECLT had a long-standing partnership contract with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). After pressure from tobacco control organisations, ILO allowed the contract to expire. Both BAT and Imperial Brands are also members of the Slave-Free Alliance (SFA), which is part of a UK-based charity, Hope for Justice.1840 In its 2018 annual report, Imperial Brands stated it was a “founding member” of SFA and that SFA, alongside the ECLT Foundation, received the majority of its charitable contributions.40

Another industry-founded initiative is the Sustainable Tobacco Programme (STP). Launched in April 2016, the STP sought to provide a “single sustainability programme for the tobacco industry”.41 It is managed by independent supply chain consultant AB Sustain, a subsidiary of AB Agri.42

Total LandCare (TLC) is another sustainability NGO popular with tobacco companies. Its mission is “to improve the livelihoods and standards of living of smallholder farm households across the region”.43 Its funders include the Altria Group, PMI, BAT, Japan Tobacco and the ECLT Foundation as well as non-tobacco companies like Coca-Cola. TLC began receiving tobacco industry funding in 2001 from PMI and Philip Morris USA (now a member of the Altria Group).43

From 2001 to 2014, BAT, PMI, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco spent a combined US$22 million on CSR projects through Total LandCare and ECLT targeting child labour and deforestation. Researchers calculated that this amount was roughly equivalent to 2% of the cost savings these companies derived from deforestation and the use of child labour.15 TLC has since partnered with international non-governmental organisations, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and international development agency USAID, as well as government bodies in southern Africa.43 According to Dr Athena Ramos, public health disparities researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, CSR programmes targeted at child labour “represent more of a public relations strategy than any real meaningful change in practice”.44

These partnerships have at times simultaneously involved the tobacco industry and governments. From 2009 to 2014, for example, Imperial Tobacco (now Imperial Brands) funded a TLC project for the Government of Mozambique.45 Specific examples of the programmes TLC has implemented with tobacco industry funding are detailed below.

Country-level programmes

Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) also fund specific country- or community-level programmes. Below are examples of CSR programmes implemented by TTCs from countries across the globe, alongside information on in-country tobacco industry activity.

Brazil

Souza Cruz, British American Tobacco (BAT)’s Brazilian subsidiary, has partnered with the National Service of Rural Learning (SENAR) since 1999 to implement the “Growing Up Right” programme intended to minimise the risk of child labour.18 Since 2011, BAT has also been involved with the Brazilian Tobacco Growers Association, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and the Ministry of the Environment for the preservation of forest on the south coast of the country.19

In Brazil, where criticism of the soybean industry for its contribution to deforestation has led to global outcry, tobacco farming ranks alongside soybeans and wheat as one of the leading causes of vegetation loss.46 In the south of the country, British American Tobacco’s biggest operational area in the world, tobacco shares responsibility for the reduction of native forest cover to less than 2% of its original extent.47 During the same period of escalation of industry forestation CSR programmes, the scale of destruction of forests actually increased in LMICs during the same period as escalating CSR promotion, providing an “entrée for the tobacco industry into civil society and CSR, thus avoiding direct responsibility for the environmental consequences of the industry” according to Professor Kelley Lee, widely cited Canadian global health scholar.46

India

Imperial Brands funds education, sanitation and health through its leaf partnership with Alliance One in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, including environmental education through PROTECT, a local NGO, and an after-school programme, which Imperial said was intended to “minimize the risk of child labour”.48

Individual interventions on a community level do not address the structural harms that tobacco cultivation causes to local communities. In India, where tobacco cultivation causes the loss of 45 kg of topsoil per acre cultivated per year, a government report called mono-cropped tobacco “the most erosive crop”, beating out cotton (7.5 kg), grapes (11 kg) and groundnut (12.5) (Reddy & Gupta, 2001).49 Child labour in the tobacco industry has also been documented in Andhra Pradesh as well as across the country.50 According to Dr Ramos, tobacco industry CSR programmes that propose to address child labour “represent more of a public relations strategy than any real meaningful change in practice” and disincentivise external monitoring efforts, especially in LMICs.44

Indonesia

Sampoerna, PMI’s Indonesian subsidiary, operates a wide number of environmentally-focussed CSR programmes under its “Sampoerna untuk Indonesia” scheme. These include a two-year (2018-2020) production sludge waste to fertiliser research project with Insitut Peranian Bogor (IPB) and Indonesian Agricultural Department in East Java (BPTP). A second major programme is the “Hope Project”, which re-purposes factory materials like pallets for its “adult consumer events” and forms a key part of Sampoerna’s marketing strategy. The company stated that: “In 2018, this project successfully recycled 52 tons worth of materials while simultaneously reducing 20% in marketing costs”.51

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that in the course of a 2014-2015 study on child labour in Indonesian tobacco fields, nearly half of all children interviewed reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. HRW concluded that “companies’ human rights due diligence practices were not sufficient to eliminate hazardous child labor in the supply chain” and therefore tobacco companies “risk contributing to the use of, and benefitting from, hazardous child labor”.52 Both BAT and PMI have major operations in this area: PT Bentoel Internasional Investama (Bentoel) and PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna Tbk (Sampoerna), respectively.53

Malawi

From 2001 to at least 2013, Total LandCare (TLC) received millions of dollars of funding from the tobacco industry and ECLT Foundation for forestry,5455 crop diversification5657 and child labour5859 projects in Malawi.

Malawi and Mozambique are “strategic leaf sourcing locations” for Imperial Brands in Africa. In Malawi, Imperial has been piloted many sustainability initiatives across areas including water conservation,406061 afforestation,62 combatting soil erosion,63 and crop diversification.64

In 2018, PMI signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Palladium, the in-country implementer of USAID’s Feed the Future Malawi Agricultural Diversification project,65 to implement “select initiatives” in Malawi.5 It is unclear whether this partnership includes funding. Palladium is also funded by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, a foundation funded solely by PMI. Read more on our page on the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World Grantees.

Tobacco industry harms to the environment and to smallholder farmer communities are well-documented in Malawi. Estimates have placed responsibility for 70% of national deforestation in Malawi on the shoulders of the tobacco industry, making it the main cause of deforestation in the country.66 In 2015, Malawi devoted 5% of its agricultural land to farming tobacco, the highest proportion in the world, but also had the fourth fastest deforestation rate in the world.67 BAT is also being sued by legal firm Leigh Day for deriving “unjust enrichment” from underpayment and forced/child labour in tobacco farming operations in Malawi. Though only BAT is named on the lawsuit filed on behalf of tenant farmers in Malawi, this case could protect children and serve as legal precedent to force tobacco supply chain reform, according to Margaret Wurth, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.68

Mozambique

From 2009 to 2014, TLC was one of a several organisations implementing the government initiative “Promoting Rural Investment in Smallholder Enterprises” (PRISE) in Mozambique. This project was majority funded by Imperial Tobacco (now Imperial Brands).45

Food insecurity has been tied to tobacco cultivation in Mozambique. In 2019, the Global Hunger Index rated the situation in Mozambique as “serious”: 27.9% of the population was undernourished. Tobacco farming takes arable land away from food crops, depletes soil nutrients and contaminates local water supplies, further harming staple crop production. This in turn further diminishes food security and contributes to malnutrition in communities.6970

New Zealand

British American Tobacco New Zealand (BATNZ) provides funding to Keep New Zealand Beautiful for its anti-littering education programmes.18

More than six million cigarette butts are discarded in the environment in New Zealand each year. Researchers have called initiatives that encourage individual-level interventions to address tobacco product waste largely ineffective: “Fundamentally, these ’corporate social responsibility’ initiatives position butt disposal as a smokers’ problem, reinforce negative stereotypes of smokers, and relocating responsibility away from tobacco companies”.71

Portugal

PMI has funded ABAE’s “#Breakthehabit” anti-littering education campaign since 2018 in Portugal.5 PMI is not, however, listed as a partner on the organisation’s website.72 Beach clean-up initiatives sponsored by tobacco industry in the United States, for example, have attracted criticism for contributing to greenwashing.73

Cigarette filters are commonly the most collected item on beach clean-ups. Worldwide, an estimated 5.6 trillion cigarette butts, equivalent to 766,571 metric tons, are deposited each year. The industry has consistently and disingenuously marketed cigarette filters as “biodegradable”, with the explicit aim of pre-empting environmental legislation.74

Sri Lanka

BAT has funded the Sustainable Agriculture Development Programme (SADP) in Sri Lanka through its subsidiary, Ceylon Tobacco Company, since 2006. Variations of SADP have been initiated “on an invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka”, including facilitation by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms in 2010-2011.7576

After the Sri Lankan government publicly announced its intention to ban tobacco cultivation by 2020, Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) engaged in spreading misleading information about the contribution of tobacco cultivation to sustainable development, attempted to interfere in the policymaking process, organised a Buddhist ritual against the ban and promoted its SADP programme through media tours.77

Tanzania

The JT Group (JTI parent company) partnered with TLC from 2007 to 2014 to fund the Community Reforestation and Support Program in Tanzania and Malawi.78

Loss of biodiversity due to tobacco cultivation deforestation-driven habitat fragmentation is well-documented in Tanzania. Excessive wood use during tobacco curing and uncontrolled land clearing are important factors leading to deforestation and desertification. The tobacco industry has a history of funding and promoting afforestation programmes in order to distract and refute research that shows the negative effects of tobacco cultivation on forest cover, biodiversity, soil erosion and ground water retention.79

United States and Canada

Altria, Reynolds American International (BAT) and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (BAT) all provide funding for the Cigarette Litter Prevention Programme run by Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Unsmoke Canada Cleanups is another initiative which raises awareness of cigarette butt waste and organises litter clean-ups. Launched in September 2020, this grant-giving programme operates through a partnership between the national nonprofit The Great Outdoors Fund80 and Unsmoke Canada, an initiative of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., a Philip Morris International subsidiary.8182 KAB has attracted criticism for being a corporate greenwashing front group.73

The Cumberland Plateau Stewardship Fund, of which Altria is a member along with US government departments, has provided a total of US$3.1 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund conservation programmes in the US Cumberland Plateau, which spans parts of eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, from 2017-2019.838485 RAI and Altria are also both members of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative hosted at North Carolina State University (NC State).1828 The Cumberland Plateau is located in key tobacco growing states. A 2013 investigation by Human Rights Watch revealed that, of 133 children interviewed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where over 90% of tobacco grown in the US is cultivated, 66% reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. At least eight major cigarette manufacturers, including BAT, PMI, Altria, Imperial Brands, JTI and China National Tobacco Company all sourced tobacco leaf from the US at the time.86

Tobacco industry charitable donations

Charitable donations are a key part of tobacco industry CSR strategy. Though companies are not always obliged to disclose the amounts and destinations of their charitable donations, both Philip Morris International and the Altria Group publish information on their funding of third-party organisations online.8788

The tobacco industry also commonly donates to disaster relief efforts where they operate, including: Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti,87 Indonesia,78987 Italy, Japan, Malaysia,87 Mexico,787 Mozambique,90 the Philippines,787 Romania, Senegal and Serbia.87

These lists are not comprehensive. Evidence of funding for sustainability programmes in Australia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea and Ukraine is also given in PMI’s charitable donations disclosure for 2014-2018.87

In the United States, the Altria Group has funded various environmental sustainability organisations. Donations disclosed in 2018 and 2019 appear in the table below.

Table detailing the contributions made to environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by the Altria Group in 2018 and 2019.
Table 1. Altria Group charitable donations to environmental/sustainability organisations in 2018 and 2019.88
*Total giving US$5.6 million in “Environment” category. 
**Amount not disclosed.

Co-option of “sustainability”

In sustainability reports, tobacco companies use “sustainability” as a rhetorical strategy to align themselves with both environmental sustainability and sustainable development. All major TTCs are at least rhetorically supportive of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); examples from 2018 and 2019 tobacco company sustainability reports can be seen in Image 4.

Four images show pages from tobacco company reports that include information on how company strategy aligns with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Clockwise from top left: JT Group 2019, Imperial Brands 2019, BAT 2019, PMI 2019.
Image 4: Tobacco companies use sustainability reports to attempt to align themselves with Sustainable Development Goals.5229192

For example, in the company’s 2016 sustainability report, BAT CEO (at the time) Nicandro Durante said there was a “clear alignment between the SDGs and our own sustainability priorities”.29 However, since 2017, WHO’s [Framework Convention on Tobacco Control], which prevents the tobacco industry from having influence on health policy, has been explicitly included in SDG 3 (Human Health) through Target 3A: “Strengthen the implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries, as appropriate”.93 Notably, none of these reports mention the incorporation of the WHO FCTC into the SDGs as part of Target 3.

In Highjacking the SDGs? The Private Sector and the Sustainable Development Goals, German tobacco control expert Laura Graen argues that references to the SDGs form “part of a broader, multi-layered strategy with the aim of stopping tobacco control measures such as taxation, advertising bans or plain packaging”.23 An internal Philip Morris International (PMI) document, leaked to Reuters in 2015, revealed that the potential inclusion of additional tobacco control measures in the SDGs were seen by PMI as an “alarming development” because the company feared “that it could lead to the creation of another international body at the UN that would deal specifically with tobacco issues”.94

Tobacco companies take advantage of conflicting goals (e.g. economy and health) within SDGs. In particular, tobacco companies point to SDG 17 (on Public-Private Engagement) to justify and advocate for tobacco industry involvement in government, which is prohibited by Article 5.3 of the FCTC.185227 The industry has formed relationships with other government departments after being excluded from health through “sustainable development” partnerships and programmes: BAT Bangladesh has partnered with the Bangladeshi Department for Agricultural Extension to implement sustainability CSR projects.95 The industry uses SDGs to further circumvent regulation and perpetuate its harmful business practices, undermining sustainable development rather than helping it.23

  • For more detail on how the tobacco industry aligns itself with sustainable development in smallholder farmer communities, read our page on Tobacco Farming.

Impact on regulation

On one hand, encouraging companies to disclose more information on the environmental impact of their products (through their life cycle and supply chains) can be seen as increasing transparency and supporting improvement of inefficient and harmful practices. On the other hand, increasing disclosure can also be seen as a form of CSR self-promotion. Academic research on governance suggests that these “proactive moves by the industry to stave off regulation that would require them to adhere to externally wrought environmental standards and practices”.96

Voluntary disclosure and other “ethical and green business” practices have been criticised as CSR and public relations campaigns designed to rehabilitate corporate image and increase product sales without addressing the fundamental changes necessary to core business practices.159798 An additional challenge is that regulations differ by location. Tobacco companies have also historically taken advantage of differing regulation to avoid bearing the weight of corporate responsibility for their products. This includes avoiding and evading tax as well as environmental regulations.99100

For example, in March 2016, BAT announced it would close a cigarette manufacturing plant in Malaysia due to the government’s implementation of an increased excise tax and consideration of plain packaging.101 However, it had really made plans to open up another manufacturing plant in southern Vietnam, well before the excise taxes or discussions on plain packaging commenced.102

The tactic of moving production facilities has been used by tobacco companies around the world, often when governments have sought to introduce tobacco control regulations. For example, when faced with the prospect of increased taxes and government’ support for tobacco control, Philip Morris International has closed, or threatened to close, manufacturing plants in Argentina.103104 and Colombia.105 BAT used the same tactic in Chile in 2015.106

Industry-funded sustainability programmes pre-empt criticism and make it difficult to advocate for external regulation. When commenting on the efficacy and intent of tobacco industry reforestation schemes, prominent tobacco control researchers Dr Marty Otañez and Dr Stanton Glantz said that industry-funded programmes facilitate an environment where government officials LMICs who lack revenues to fund their own initiatives are hesitant to criticise tobacco industry schemes or refuse funding. Additionally, “association with social and environmental responsibility may weaken opposition from public health and civil society groups to industry interference in tobacco control policy by making it politically more difficult to criticize tobacco companies”.15

The tobacco industry has also moved to distance itself from tobacco cultivation through establishing “leaf partnerships” with third-party companies. Instead of direct contracts with farmers, this has had the effect of transferring responsibility for monitoring and addressing problems from tobacco companies to leaf companies, while continuing to reap the benefits of cheap leaf products and escaping culpability for harmful practices. Especially in LMICs, where there may be less infrastructure to support monitoring and corporate financial contributions may have a greater impact, tobacco companies can use these kinds of initiatives to increase political support and weaken opposition.44

The WHO’s 2017 report on the environmental harms of tobacco says that this practice of evading tax and regulation “epitomizes how, in many instances, when citizens petition for better environmental practices or more socially responsible business conduct, transnational tobacco companies simply uproot their operations and ignore the long-term environmental damage that they have caused, and take them to a new location where they can repeat the environmental damage”.66 When companies relocate away from taxation and regulation, they impoverish already cash-strapped central governments. The current and historical tax evasion and anti-tax lobbying of tobacco companies makes it all the more difficult for LMICs with developing economies to devise and implement effective environmental regulatory regimes.

It its 2017 report, WHO recommends that steps to limit greenwashing include legislating at international and local levels to require companies meet specific disclosure requirements for material emissions, water usage, waste disposal, chemical use, child labour and other targets. It is particularly important that these regulations apply equally across countries; tobacco companies have a history of moving their operations to avoid scrutiny and environmental regulations.66 The evaluation of disclosed data should be performed by independent evaluators, such as government, who do not require or accept payment from companies for this service.17 The WHO also recommends that countries ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS) that include bans on advertising CSR programmes, in accordance with the FCTC.

Researchers and international non-governmental organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU), have suggested that implementing and strengthening existing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes to make producers responsible for the physical and financial costs of disposing of waste of post-consumer products.107108 EPR will be implemented in the EU, with increasing targets for recycling, prevention and use from 2025 to 2035.109 The “Single Use Plastics Directive” will include cellulose acetate products, including cigarette filters, which do not biodegrade.33

Tobacco Tactics Resources

Relevant Links

TCRG Research

References

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  4. K. Bruno, The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash, London, 1992, p.1
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  13. Kingsley Wheaton, British American Tobacco Capital Markets Day presentation, 18 March 2020, accessed March 2020
  14. British American Tobacco website, accessed March 2020
  15. abcdefgM. Otañez & S.A. Glantz, Social responsibility in tobacco production? Tobacco companies’ use of green supply chains to obscure the real costs of tobacco farming. Tobacco Control, 2011, 20(6):403–411, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.039537
  16. Trucost, P. L. C., and TEEB for Business Coalition, Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business, 2013 (paywall)
  17. abcdefghY.H, Hendlin & S.A. Bialous, The environmental externalities of tobacco manufacturing: A review of tobacco industry reportingAmbio, 2020, 49:17–34, doi:10.1007/s13280-019-01148-3
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