This month, world leaders and business executives convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th United Nations climate conference. Outside the conference rooms, a different kind of convening took place, as hundreds of thousands of activists gathered in Glasgow and globally to demand more immediate and drastic action on climate change. Amongst these protesters was Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly referred to COP26 as a “greenwashing” event.

This refrain resounded among activists. But what is greenwashing? And how can those with a genuine interest in saving the planet avoid the trap of greenwashing? I offer two simple but loaded words as the answer: human rights.

Person holding sign at protest that says Blah Blah Blah
A school strike for climate in advance of COP26. Credit: Mænsard vokser / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What is greenwashing and why has COP26 been criticized as greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in reference to the practice of companies holding out their “green” activities to the consuming public while obscuring the degradation caused by their other activities. Think Nestlé Waters proudly announcing a plastic water bottle made from “100% sustainable and renewable resources,” while simultaneously depleting aquifers and other public water sources, including on Indigenous land.

Activists are also now using the label to criticize what they view as empty promises made by world leaders at COP26. Among those promises are a pledge from 40 countries to phase out coal, an agreement from 105 countries to reverse deforestation, and a commitment from a coalition of banks to have net-zero investments by 2050. Although these pledges have the appearance of curbing emissions, many observers view them as toothless, empty promises, especially given the fact that some communities are already knee-deep in the effects of the climate crisis.

How can a human rights approach avoid greenwashing?

A human rights approach shifts the focus of environmental action. Human rights law and movements concentrate on the responsibilities of those with power and authority. It’s not so much about the individual consumer purchasing a reusable water bottle, but rather is about mitigating and preventing the worst impacts of climate change on a broad scale. It also alters the burden and time scale of action, shifting the rhetoric from one centered on voluntary consumption choices and the future aspirations of governments to the rightful and urgent demands of heavily impacted communities.

Under international human rights law, governments have binding obligations to protect rights impacted by climate change, including the right to life, the right to water, the right to health, and the right to a healthy environment itself. These legal obligations can be used to hold governments to account, and to ensure that promises made at summits and elsewhere give life to real, systemic change.

Instead of a greenwashing approach that applauds public figures and corporations for their “green” gestures, human rights-informed environmental activism shifts the spotlight to affected communities themselves. Human rights standards include a right to participate in policymaking, a right closely held by those impacted by climate policies. Climate action that is informed by and built upon the brave leadership of Indigenous peoples, youth, and Global South activists should take center stage, and is more likely to respond directly to the needs of those threatened by the climate crisis.

By shifting the focus of environmental action, a human rights approach eschews greenwashing. On the contrary, it facilitates the essential work of bringing rallying cries from outside the COP walls directly into the negotiating room.

Cindy Wu JD’22 is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Before HLS, she studied International Relations and Peace, Conflict & Justice at the University of Toronto.