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What’s your carbon footprint?

A ‘successful, deceptive PR campaign’?

Was the term coined by Big Oil to distract consumers from who is really to blame for climate change?

The term ‘carbon footprint‘ is defined by Merriam Webster dictionary as:

the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person's activities or a product's manufacture and transport) during a given period

Nearly two decades ago, British Petroleum - one of the biggest oil companies in the world - hired Ogilvy & Mather to promote their new campaign: the carbon footprint calculator. The carbon footprint gave everyone the power to evaluate how much their daily activities such as driving, buying food and travelling affected the environment. This led to the upheaval of mainstream media with headlines such as: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint still taking over today. When discussing the popularisation of the term, Benjamin Franta (J.D-PhD Student at Stanford Law School) as:

“This is one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever”

This has led to the polarised debate: has this successful and deceptive PR campaign shifted the blame from mass emitters to consumers? To what extent did this campaign shift our mindset with regards to climate change? By shifting the narrative to indulge consumerist patterns in the climate-change discourse, the use of the term by Big Oil companies has - perhaps even successfully - also shifted the narrative to ask society: what have you done to destroy the planet? It is not enough for the bystander to say that they are not murdering the victim, yet, it is not for the murder to point to the bystander and say you are killing him.

By deflecting the blame, Big Oil have started a new narrative, which must be revered. The term ‘carbon footprint’ will be around for a while, yet, it is up to us to redefine it. While it is true that the bystander does not kill the victim, it can be said that they play a part in defining the movement. With this being said, while individual action may not be enough, the concepts of corporate accountability and individual activism are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, to claim so can be alienating - to hold big companies accountable is merely but a step forward and cannot be done in isolation. So, our expensive meat alternatives may not be enough, but the consistency with which we claim systemic change might. The fight against the climate crisis calls for us to see the interconnections between the pieces and therefore become a piece in the puzzle. Big Oil’s deceiving propaganda may, now, be entrenched in our sustainability discourse, yet, we have the power to redefine it.


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