“Greenwashing Culture” with Toby Miller

Transcript published on the George Mason University Cultural Studies website. Audio downloadable from the Internet Archive. Original interview on 8 November 2018.

Audio of Toby Miller and Pavithra Suresh “Greenwashing culture” on the Capitalism, Climate, and Culture podcast, a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University

Toby Miller: That’s what I mean by “green citizenship”: the capacity to identify beyond being a consumer or a user and into, connecting to ecological impacts, but also to all the people in the labor process, spread across the very origin of the object, through to its demise.

Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Toby Miller, who is interviewed in November 2018 by Pavithra Suresh in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University. The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training. This year’s colloquium series examines “Capitalism, climate change, and culture.” The fall colloquium posed the question: “how did we get into this mess?” While the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question: “where do we go from here?”

Pavithra Suresh: Hi there, welcome. I’m Pavithra Suresh. I’m a PhD student in the cultural studies program at George Mason University. As part of our cultural studies colloquium, we’ve invited several speakers to join us for this colloquium speaker series. Today, we’re joined here with Toby Miller, who is the author of over twenty nine books including Greenwashing Culture?

Thank you for joining us today Toby.

Toby Miller: It’s a pleasure to be here, Pavithra. Thank you for having me.

Pavithra Suresh:  You’ve written extensively on greenwashing. Can you explain to us what the term broadly refers to?

Toby Miller: So here’s one of my favorite foundational myths of all time. We all have to have founding myths about ourselves and the world. Like all good things this originates in California.

So there’s a surfer dude who’s rocking down Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 1. And he stops into a Motel 6 or the equivalent, in the days when a Motel 6 was called that because it was six bucks a night. Okay, and it’s 1986, and yet already he sees a little sign that says “we’re going green. Join us in saving the planet: reuse your towel” and he thinks you have got to be kidding me you are trying to adopt a stance that gives you a patina of legitimacy ecologically but is actually about saving labor costs and saving materials costs. I don’t like this. I’m going to call this “greenwashing.”

 Pretty good foundational mythology, wouldn’t you agree?

Pavithra Suresh: Definitely.

Toby Miller:  And essentially what’s happened is that’s been extrapolated from to talk about attempts by governments, corporation,s individuals, unions, non-government organizations, whatever we consider to be agents or actors in the social world endeavoring to legitimize their activities by saying we’re pro-environment, when in fact, this is a bit of a cloak for other activities.

And you know classically, we think of — to give you one other foundational example, when there was the first major oil spill in the United States that really burst the concept of pollution as an everyday problem — 1969 off Santa Barbara — that happened right at the time that the Nixon administration had decided to defund public broadcasting, which had only just started but which it had decided was a conspiracy of Jewish liberals — two groups that Nixon didn’t like.

And Esso decided because it was getting a lot of grief as were other mineral extraction companies after the 1969 oil spill. Let’s fund classical European music on PBS television and win over the white middle class to see that we’re not the problem we care. And that’s an example even though it’s from years before the concept was coined of greenwashing, that would resonate I think with people today.

Pavithra Suresh: Wow, definitely. So in your recent book and in today’s presentation, you’ve applied greenwashing to culture. So, admittedly, I considered some of the cultural texts you discuss in your book —so notably movies journalism museums and electronic devices to be relatively “green,” compared to something like oil extraction or military operations. So how do the cultural Industries greenwash their products?

Toby Miller:  Well, there are really two elements to this. One is that they, because they thought of as green provide cover to extractive industries — the example I just gave. The other is that they don’t disclose their own carbon footprint. This applies whether you’re talking about a film or cell phone, as you mentioned.

So to give an instance: a film like Titanic. Did you cry when little Leo turned blue?

Pavithra Suresh: Of course.

Toby Miller: I, of course, did not because I was obsessed with the political economy underpinning his crocodile tears and my own. So that of course took place in Northwestern Mexico in Popotlaa.

Okay, and that film is often taken as a Marxist paen. James Cameron, the director-producer says he’s a Marxist. And it is meant to be about class politics inter alia and British imperialism.  But one of the hidden stories to that film is that as part of the takeover of this particular part of Mexico by Fox which along with Paramount co-produced the movie, they generated this extraordinary water tank, biggest in the world, which is still used both as a tourist attraction and as a space for giantic productions that require this sort of apparent oceanic view.

Part of preparing that tank involved a pollution effect that is still experience 20 years later. So the organic local industry for the  Popotlanos is shellfish and the shellfish catch still down 30% on what it was prior to the mid 1990s when the tank was built.

You see at the end of the film like Titanic or most others: “no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” You don’t get an environmental audit. You don’t get told how many miles people flew, how much electricity was used, what the sources of electricity were in the making and also the viewing of the thing, how many transportation miles were clocked up on cars, by people going to see the motion picture. None of that is part of our discourse in thinking about cinema. It’s just somehow or other magically green in a way that we think flying in an airplane, or the operation of the US Military, or the classic extractive Industries are not. It’s not manufacturing. It’s not coal mining. It’s sort of okay. Well, it’s not.

Pavithra Suresh:  So it’s clear from your text that you situate your conception of culture within the Frankfurt School ideas of culture as an industry. What are the implications of greenwashing from within this view of culture?

Toby Miller: Well, I’m not sure I would really qualify as a true blue dyed-in-the-wool Frankfurter.

I think there are lots of interesting things in the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, but there are lots of approaches that I think it loses sight of. One thing that’s handy in the discourse of the culture Industries is endeavoring to see them as operating with  — via a labor process and that labour process as in a sense functioning regardless of the industry you’re in, right? It could be car manufacturer, as in Fordism, classically. It could be plant variety rights, distillation, could be anything.

But one of the things that’s a bit different about a lot of cultural areas. Is that unlike in the classic production line, people get a lot of human interaction that is casual over which they have a fair bit of control and they also get to do what’s called multitasking, which is not there in the Fordist narrative around which their understanding of Hollywood and radio production and later television was constructed. So just at a foundational level I want to sort of change that little bit of it.

But I think they’re their notion that we should stop privileging the aesthetic as somehow or other distinct from the way that the state operates, or the way that workers experience their lives, or notions of secondary accumulation is absolutely spot-on.

The other thing that I would differentiate myself from in thinking about these issues is that their privilege subject is the subject of the avant-garde. It is the modernist self-reflexive thinker who emergent from German philosophical Romanticism takes self-criticism as the alpha and the omega of reflection and self improvement. And that that allegedly only occurs through instantiation, the differentiation, and the confusion of modernist texts that don’t have a simple teleological narrative. Whereas if you think about the complexity of the way people respond to self-help books, or romance fiction, or any — or novelas, any one of the number of supposedly, you know, narratively realist texts.

You see that there’s just as much disagreement, placement of oneself into the story, complexity, and so on as they thought could only apply in the products of non-industrial artisanal aesthetic processes. So I think there’s a lot to be gained from them. But one has to be very careful about what is that sort of aesthetic snobbery that is not very empirically grounded in its claims.

Pavithra Suresh:  Great.  So thinking about aesthetics and perhaps even aesthetics now every, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more to how museums can green wash their operations as wel?

Toby Miller: Sure. So a couple of the ones that I’ve been interested in are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tate Modern — one in Southern California, one in London England as we like to call it. Both of which have received quite a lot of money from BP. BP which used to be an acronym for British Petroleum, but is no longer because it’s a US-UK joint venture company and it is jointly headquartered here in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

People will have heard of it. If for no other reason than the horror of the Gulf Coast and the terrible pollution that occurred there a few years ago.  Now BP is part of a general extractive industry maneuver that is called “the search for the social license to operate”. Fortune magazine described this social license to operate as the concept for the coal industry in particular for 2013. And what it means is okay, we have the technical permission from say government to dig somewhere, and we have the financial legitimacy of having bought or rented the space, but we actually want to win over indigenous groups where they are traditional owners, or  other citizens who happen to live in an area, so that they have a sense of co-ownership.

It’s a physiocratic notion, but it doesn’t involve any payment to these groups. It’s that they get behind it and they see benefits flowing from their labor or their ownership, their feeling, their structure of emotion that cathects onto these things. That social license to operate comes both from being able to say here are jobs that are spin-offs, externalities that come to you as residents, but also by saying and we are disinterested corporately responsible entities and look at the way in which we fund say the Arts.

Okay. So this means giving money to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in ways that appear not to have a self-interested motives, that are altruistic. In the case of for example, the Tate modern it means doing things like funding and edgy politicized arts innovation project where young artists who want to make a political point are going to have BP behind them and with the full power of the institution of the Tate modern, but guess what?  There’s one topic you are not allowed to discuss with your edgy, innovative politicized art — one corporation you’re not really supposed to focus on and criticize them. No one listen to this podcast can imagine which company that might be.

So these are classic examples of how these folks operate what they did was move into areas that have once been sponsored by tobacco companies. And now that those tobacco companies are persona non grata, this is their way in to legitimacy with members of the same kind of oligarchic set of elites that they’re from. So the senior executive core of these companies are going to have connections that are familial at an educational at a cultural level with the people who are hegemonic within the museum sector and those who are major donors to that sector and hence those people who are very influential more generally.

So it’s a public relations maneuver. Nowadays, of course euphemized has “strategic communications.”

Pavithra Suresh: You’ve also written on the greenwashing of sports and sports culture. What are some examples of ways in which sports leaders exploit the language of environmental consideration for profit?

Toby Miller: Well, again, the sports institutions seek to suggest that, if anything, they have an organic relationship to nature, which of course is part of the foundational mythology of success on the sports field, be a track or football or anything else, but you get this big time in areas like the Winter Olympics, you know, the notion of the Northern European hunting subject, the white male pioneer as it were. The skiing subject any of those sports, hockey even, that this is something that emerged as part of humanity’s appearance within these winter spaces. Often these activities come from were learnt from indigenous people, learnt by white colonists. And that notion is profoundly connected to the whole Winter Olympic movement and the “Back To Nature” elements of it also connect, of course to fascism and to environmentalism in very uncomfortable and complex ways. All of this can be done even when you hold these events in places like Sochi in Russia in 2014 and very shortly in Beijing, the next one, when in fact snow is rarely present organically. It has to be constructed. When the procedures in order to mount a games involve the clearance of native vegetation, of native animal life, of native human life, in order that you can construct an infrastructure that then flows into a projected tourist future. And that tourist future by the way is also claimed to be green because tourism is meant to be so much more ecologically sound then the industries in some cases that it’s displaced.

So that would be I guess a classic example, but you can find them everywhere. So people may have heard of Juventus, a famous Italian football team. I’m referring you to what 96 percent of the world’s population calls football. It does have an entirely green stadiu. Or you could think about Formula One, you know, the big high performance car racing World Championship, which for many years wasn’t on here in the US but now is again.  Where the claim is made look, okay? We’re running around the world 12 months of the year. We’ve got all these automobiles that are flying with us and so on. But look at the incremental changes that we make to the internal combustion engine each year, in order to try to win and you’ll see that they have spill off benefits into everyday automotive activity that reduce fuel costs and fuel use and actually make the world greener.  So there’s even an argument these people make that Formula One is greener than the Tour de France — the bicycle race.

Pavithra Suresh:  Interesting.

So you begin your book by discussing Edelman, which is a PR firm. You know that Edelman initially committed to no longer working for climate change deniers, as was a growing consensus among PR firms generally. Yet a year later in 2014, a subsidiary of their firm was found to have advised the American Petroleum Institute. What are we to make of this?

Toby Miller: Well, this is one of these childish vulgar Marxist gotcha moments that people like me thrive on of course. By the way, we’re speaking in the week of the midterm elections and the American Petroleum Institute brought the CNN nighttime coverage elections to us as part of its energy challenge initiative, if anybody happened to be watching CNN. What we to make of this is that Edelman is a huge multinational corporation, sometimes in big organizations left and right hands don’t know what they’re doing — and I’m a single individual that’s frequently the case with me — but also it’s a public relations entity.

So it’s businesses is, I’m sorry, mendacity. And it’s been caught out many times before in doing this. It had a subsidiary that had got hundreds of millions, as you rightly imply from the American Petroleum Institute, which is one of the big multinational or national climate change deniers that we have.

Now. let me very quickly speak about that. What these companies and their industry representative peak bodies like the American Petroleum Institute do is run dual lines. Okay at one leve, they will fund scholars to do serious research that is peer reviewed which always shows climate change is happening, and its human-made, and it is generated in large path by the work of extractive Industries.

And so they can stand back and say “look we give all this money to these people who are coming up with this very valuable research and isn’t that good? And it’s hands off from us and we don’t influence any of their findings.” At the same time, they are funding people who are not real scholars to produce reports climate change, denial more generally for coin-operated think tanks that are lying about everything and they get infinitely more media coverage. So on the one hand these entities and their public relations advisers and the circle of communications companies that work with them are very cleverly able to say to governments and universities and their scholarly critics. Look we’ve given all this money in a hands-off way. On the other they are at the same time filling their boots in terms of propaganda by funding think tanks to do spurious studies.

Pavithra Suresh: So we’re currently in a political moment, at least in this country of the scaling back of environmental protections considering your research on the corporate side of environmental crisis, what do you see as some emergent issues that are necessary for those of us within the realm of cultural studies and media studies to address?

Toby Miller: Well, first of all, I think we need to do what I like to think of as an analysis of the entire life of the commodity sign.

So just everyday chat people on street corners waiting for buses talk that way all the time, right?

What do I mean by that?  To engage in a sort of rigorous account or try to provide a rigorous account of how culture is formed where it travels what happens to it throughout its life.

So to give an example. Okay, some of you may be familiar with Wimbledon the, you know, once a year British tennis championship, all England lawn tennis championship. They are these four tennis championships: one in Australia, one in France, one in the UK, one here in the US that are the four majors.

You could do a very interesting — and it should be done is being done — analysis of gender issues race issues class issues National issues of representation, whether it’s about clothing, or hairstyles, or media coverage, or pay grades. Those things are very, very important. 

Another good thing to do is to say where do the tennis balls come from?So the average Wimbledon tennis ball has traveled 50,000 miles before it gets on court. Okay, think about that. I know. Because guess what there are women in Bangladesh being and children being paid nothing, essentially, to do a lot of work to make it happen. But there are also designers working on it. There are materials collection units across the world. And then of course it travels to and from different points. That’s a pretty important thing for media and cultural studies people to look at. So if we’re going to take seriously a materialist analysis, it is going to enable us to talk about the exploitation of those women’s lives in terms of issues, like race gender, international division of cultural labor, we’re also going to have to take seriously where that ball travels and what its ecological impact may be. Similarly if we’re going to be interested in, for example, people watching a movie, watching a queer documentary, watching the National Football League on the telephone. We’re gonna have to take seriously the fact that that’s probably 10 times the amount of electricity as if they were watching it on television.

All right, when we get an email back that’s bounced because something was wrong with the address and we see all the places its travelled trying to find its addressee — that’s the packet system. We need to think of the packet system as being the product of Cold War research, you know, it was generated as part of an attempt to make sure they was a decentralized communication system in the United States akin to the freeway system that will be able to elude the horror of a successful intercontinental ballistic missile attack because there wouldn’t be one place you could hit, there would be all these nodes.

But we’d also then want to say okay, that’s interesting. Thank you. But how is each part of that node powered? Was it carbon fuel powered? Was it solar battery power? Was it water energy powered? Was at wind-powered? All those little travelled nodes that are constructed, how did the energy flow? The same with any search you do on a search engine.

So I want these things, along with labor, along with meaning to be at the core of media and cultural studies. So we’re never allowing ourselves to leave out political economy, we are never allowing ourselves to leave out meaning, and we’re never allowing ourselves to leave out reception, the experience.

So we know about the labor bit. We know about the materials bit. We now the ownership and control bit. We know about the signification. We know about the experience. All these things have to be brought together to understand that total life of the commodity sign. Nothing privileged. Nothing left out. Environmentalism is not the be-all and end-all and nor are the other components.

It’s hard work, very difficult to put together these different forms of knowledge. So what it also takes is some self re-education and also working in teams with people who are scientists, who are political economists, who are lawyers, and who can provide the necessary expertise to help us, to understand, to decode, to recode the way some of this information can be found out.

Pavithra Suresh: You promote green citizenship as a solution to the issues related to greenwashing. Can you explain what these concepts refer to? 

Toby Miller: In terms of green citizenship. I guess it’s meant to be a corrective to some of the ideas particularly here in the United States. And by the way, despite my accent. I am a citizen. That somehow or other altering consumer behavior can fix everything. Whereas as you mentioned earlier, one of the principal polluters in this country is the military. That said, the military is also trying to be a lot greener than much of the rest of the federal government and the kind of relative autonomy it has some political processes has enabled it to remain so under the Trump Administration, just as its support for affirmative action can be sustained because of its relative autonomy despite political processes. So interesting.

But we should get away from the idea that it’s our responsibility as consumers to operate in a certain way. That can be important too. And instead think of ourselves as citizens not just to the United States. But of the world apologies for the stupid cliche. What does that mean? It means thinking when we’re prompted by our favorite manufacturing company, which calls itself a designer, needless to say, of a cell phone to buy a new one. We think about the conflict minerals in Congo, the slavery, the rape, the assassination, mass executions of people working for essentially nothing who are extracting the core components of central processing units. We think about the exploitation of labour that’s relatively free in the smelting processes in East Asia that are the next phase. And then we think about them in terms of the mostly young women working in Southeastern China who manufacturing them with the high suicide rates we’ve all heard of.

And not just “I love my new phone” or “I can’t wait for the upgrade.” We think about all those people and the ecological destructiveness of the production of this good, then we think about the other workers in the cycle, who are the people working often in the informal economy who are doing the recycling in Mexico or Brazil or Malaysia or India or China. Who are exposed to occupational health and safety hazards that are inconceivable — and by the way that also applies to people in federal prisons, who are doing some of this recycling. So that we can identify with them. Not as “they’re not consumers, there somewhere else and they’re invisible” but they are my brothers and sisters or cousins or they are suffering and we are citizens together and I need to think about all the invisible labor that has gone into the production of this object that own or work with — and the yet to be created labor that is going to be part of its post-use life.

So that’s what I mean by “green citizenship”: the capacity to identify beyond being a consumer or a user and into connecting to ecological impacts, but also to all the people in the labor process spread across the very origin of the object, through to its demise.

 “Green” has come to us as a new word in the last 30 years. It’s displaced pollution, which was the term of art 50 years ago. I mentioned the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is the fons et origo of the notion of pollution as an everyday concept into a much broader concept, you know away from pollution, which was about and this is what helped to fund the found the Environmental Protection Agency. How do we clean up that River? How do you make the Genesee River inhabitable? What do we do about that factory? How do you make sure that school is safe? And into a more planetary notion.

My concern is that that planetary notion needs to be one that focuses on these labor issues and all the intersectional issues to do with gender, sexuality, religion, race, age, the other cleavages and points of connection and subjectification that we have in our societies.

And also to connect us to the Earth not necessarily in some spiritual sense, though obviously that will be relevant to some people, but in a way that makes us think about suffering as shown to us by animal and plant life as well as by human life and gives us a sense of connectedness.

Now that sense of connectedness can vary hugely. So for example, to the extent you believe in neuroscience political psychology research. The suggestion is that in the United States with its binaristic tradition of liberal and conservative being the only points you can have that liberals respond to abstract notions of a commitment to the environment that might be about environmental justice, in terms of race, or might be about environmental survival in terms of ecology, but can be relatively abstract, right? The science tells us we’ve got to change: these are the things we need to do to make that happen. Conservatives do not respond to those abstract claims. They respond to visceral disgust. So show them an animal suffering and they will anthropomorphize like that. And engage, and connect, and believe it.

 So that would suggest that one of the ways of operationalizing “green citizenship” is to combine an abstract notion of we’re all going to hell in a handbasket with here’s a picture of an animal suffering because of the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

Pavithra Suresh: And to conclude how might we shift our current system to make central these concepts.

Toby Miller: Well, I think I know how to do it in a curriculum. That’s the bourgeois answer, if ever there were one.  I think, as academics and activists, the way to go about this is as follows: first of all, you get your agenda from stakeholders so-called or key social actors in the problem and this doesn’t just apply to this issue. It applies to all issues for cultural studies for me. What do the people who are suffering, who are the subjects of suffering, describe themselves as such, say is happening for them? They set that agenda.

Then there’s an agenda that is set by the state of academic knowledge. All right, what do “we” inverted commas know about this? And when it comes to these topics in particular that’s especially interesting because most of the most significant scientific work is done by people in and from China, West Africa, South America, India. Not from us universities or Western European ones, right? 

And thirdly what appears to be the “public interest.”

And then having gotten your agenda from those three sources. They then become your ideal audiences. How can you provide knowledge in a way that is respectful, or involving as co-researchers, key stakeholders, social actors, who are identifying themselves as the subject of a crisis? Finding a way that is also effective in a scholarly sense and will engage those scientists in Nigeria or Ghana or India. Then how do you also find an audience where you have a public interest element? How do you get on NPR? How do you write an op-ed for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times whatever it may be. So for me for scholars, those are the sort of key elements. Keep those three audiences in mind as stimuli telling you what you need to do and as audiences and of course as collaborators when they wish to be.

Pavithra Suresh: You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Toby Miller: My pleasure. Thank you. 

Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Toby Miller, which is a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies Department with support from the Department of Communications,  the Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Women and Gender Studies program, and University Life.

This interview is conducted by Pavithra Suresh, a student in the PhD program in Cultural Studies. Production and audio engineering were completed by Adam Proctor. Editing was completed by me, Richard Todd Stafford. The Colloquium Series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.

References in this podcast

Miller, Toby. Greenwashing culture. Routledge, 2017.

Miller, Toby. Greenwashing sport. Routledge, 2017.

Maxwell, Richard, and Toby Miller. “Greening cultural policy.” International Journal of Cultural Policy 23, no. 2 (2017): 174-185.

Maxwell, Richard, and Toby Miller. Greening the media. Oxford University Press, 2012.


Interview: Pavithra Suresh
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Production and audio engineering: Adam Proctor
Editing, post-production, and transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster