Navigating the Copenhagen Greenwash

by Ruth Morrison

December 9, 2009

I’ve been in Copenhagen since November 28th and the streets have become increasingly crowded this week. Perhaps some of the crowds are Christmas shoppers, come in from the surrounding Danish towns. Some are negotiating teams and governmental staff from the 190 some nations that began official talks on Monday. A whole host of Copenhagen’s growing and lively morass, however, are neither Danes nor accredited negotiators, but paid representatives for companies with a stake in this meeting’s outcome.

Around every corner seems to be some mention of the COP15 (the UN’s official name for the international negotiations on climate change). Often it’s a poster pasted onto a trash barrel, street light, or construction wall advertising the upcoming December 12th international day of action. Gangs of activists, like your very own Greenpeace Youth, have set up informational stations around the city and many more are patrolling the streets with petitions and fliers for upcoming rallies and demonstrations.

Just as frequently, however, another kind of advertisement will catch your eye. Corporate branding of the COP15 talks is proving to be very popular, with companies spending real cash to make sure their name is out in force as thousands of government officials and media hit the town. Massive banners and billboards sponsored by Coke, Siemens, and Unilever have been hung and installed at most major intersections and metro stops – their messages range from entirely and intentionally vague to blatantly and ironically self-promotional.

Coke’s “Hopenhagen” billboards are generally non-offensive – they’re bright and playful illustrations of bunnies and flowers emerging from a Coke bottle. We are, I believe, to feel buoyed that the COP15 talks will bring forth a new day…just like Coke? (In all fairness, Coke has timed a big decision around their use of climate-altering chemicals in their vending machines and coolers to coincide with the start of the climate talks). 



Energy companies are another major player, though from what I’ve seen, most have hired Danish PR firms to do their talking for them – smiling faces with matching green coats on pedestrian walkways handing out stickers that say “energy alternatives” have been a new phenomenon here. I chatted with a couple of these green-coated champions today and they were curiously non-committal about their work.  For one, they were lacking in explicit information about energy, renewable or otherwise, and second, they didn’t have a lot to say about who they’ve been hired by; just a general statement of purpose: “We’re here to promote alternatives for our world’s energy needs…” A suspicious ellipses, point indeed! Methinks I smell the Nuclear Lobby!

Call these kinds of promotional stunts the hijacking of civic negotiations, call them corporate cover-ups, call them Greenwashing.  But one thing I will say about the escalated presence of climate-themed publicity here in Copenhagen is that it all at least connotes a determination, a will to do well, and a feeling that we are on the cusp of something big.


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