Is Sea-Greenwashing a Word? It Is Now.

Image by Sören Funk.

Interested in saving the oceans? Wall Street’s got you covered. New York Life Investments introduced the IQ Clean Oceans exchange-traded fund (ETF) “to track companies that create cleaner oceans through reduced pollution and better resource use.”

So, do its holdings “create cleaner oceans”? Its top 10 companies (as of late August 2022) look pretty busy polluting, purveying plastic, or processing conflict minerals. Here they are:

UNILEVER produces plastic pollution that endangers island habitats.

MICROSOFT partners with petroleum promoters like Bharat of India.

ANALOG DEVICES frontloads its environmental credentials, and works with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on climate engineering. It also makes semiconductors—containing toxic metals, acids, and solvents—for cars, consumer tech, and the military.

L’OREAL “has a stronger environmental profile than peers,” asserts S&P Global—yet for decades it has promoted a global cosmetic chemicals market.

ECOLAB is a pesticide producer.

ENPHASE works with home solar battery energy storage. Some of its materials contain conflict minerals. Smelting and refining is connected with water contamination.

TEXAS INSTRUMENTS is a semiconductor manufacturer with a history of polluting Dallas County.

SCHNEIDER ELECTRICTM makes sustainability claims and got a “green economy” hat tip from The Guardian. Previously, it got the nation’s highest-ever Superfund cleanup penalty.

NIKE emits plenty of CO2 and has a history of poisoning rivers.

NXP SEMICONDUCTORS generates toxins that adversely impact water and air.

Maybe the top holdings should be companies devoted to cleaner water? Consider PureCycle, a company that’s taken a process developed at Proctor & Gamble, and now uses it to deal with actual plastic waste. PureCycle makes shower bottles made from plastic salvaged from stadium dustbins. Its employees run cleanup days to pick up litter along the Ohio River, then recycle the polypropylene plastic. With plastic recycling constantly criticized as a sham, here’s a company that at least attempts to really do it.

Buy a $20 Share. Presto! You’re an Ocean Advocate

Ocean-related industries make up to 7% of global GDP, says New York Life Investments—making ocean cleanup a “data-driven investment opportunity.” Oceana, an ocean conservation nonprofit, has signed up to tout the idea.

A competing fund, the Newday Ocean Health ETF, debuted in June for World Oceans Day 2022. Doug Heske, CEO of Newday Impact, also frames investing as a meaningful act for nature. Heske exclaims:

“Someone can buy one share for $20 on the New York Stock Exchange and be an advocate for ocean health.”

The Newday Ocean Health ETF’s three holdings (as of late August 2022) are Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Granted, top holding #4 has the word water in its name—it’s the American Water Works Company, Inc. But a quick search shows American Water Works owns fracking companies XTO Energy and Keystone Clearwater Solutions.

Cleaner Transport ETF… What TF Is That?

New York Life Investments also offers the IQ Cleaner Transport ETF (CLNR). The firm says investors are “helping to advance the causes that matter to our lives and our planet.”

The partner here is the National Wildlife Federation—which gets a cut.

“New York Life Investments and IndexIQ contribute to the NWF’s charitable initiatives based on a portion of CLNR’s management fee,” says the investment firm. “We’re proud to help further NWF’s mission to help create a zero-carbon future where wildlife and people thrive.”

The holdings in the Cleaner Transport ETF look a lot like those in the Clean Oceans ETF. But Tesla (as of late August 2022) is CLNR’s #1 holding. New York Life Investments implies the returns will be substantial: by 2027, it says, the electric car market will grow from $140 billion to $700 billion.

Tesla is a car company. It relies on the mining of battery components, and the heavy environmental impacts of battery-making. It ships its wares internationally.

To quote

Global capitalism depends on shipping. Around 80% of world trade is carried on the seas and oceans. The majority goes by container ship. Food, car parts, stuff from Amazon – if you’re buying something that was made overseas, there’s a good chance it was brought on a container ship…The environmental impact of these vessels is colossal.
But Shipping Will Become Carbon-Free!

One investment opportunity leads to another. Check out APD (Air Products and Chemicals Inc.), a company heavily involved with firms like Saudi Aramco. It’s also producing “a world-scale green hydrogen-based ammonia production facility powered by renewable energy in Oman.”

Replacing shipping diesel with so-called green ammonia will have its own problems. Because ammonia-making involves electrolysis, it’s a high-carbon undertaking.

APD controls hydrogen pipelines in Southern California for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Moving hydrogen involves tankers, tube trailers, and pipelines. Its infrastructure impacts every environment it touches. Moreover, replacing existing vessels will take decades. Yet the very idea of green fuels can suggest that we need not change our habits and desires.

Undersea Prospectors Tout Their Light Touch

Seabed strip-mining is slated to begin in 2024, as electric vehicle battery manufacturers rush to pry cobalt, nickel and other metals from the ocean floor. This, although humans have very little knowledge of the deep-sea habitat.

We ought to leave it a mystery.

Mining proponents say deep-sea mining will impact the environment less than ground mining. They say it’s necessary for a fossil-fuel-free future.

On YouTube, an investor channel talks up the sexy plans of DeepGreen Metals Inc., which wants to extract nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese, using a diesel-driven boat from the Maersk shipping company. After debuting through a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, DeepGreen is now trading on Wall Street as The Metals Co. Its self-description:

The Metals Company will enable the battery-powered shift to clean energy and electric vehicles with the lightest planetary touch.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty regulates the use of international waters for the “benefit of mankind as a whole” while ensuring “effective protection of the marine environment.” If the International Seabed Authority is serious about protection, it should say no to seafloor mining.

Then There’s the Fish Farming Business…

…which has had plenty of assistance from the tax-advantaged non-profit sector. “Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world,” says Nature Conservancy’s Robert Jones in The Guardian. “And we’re at the very beginning of this industry. Now is the chance to influence where it goes.”

If we’re at the very beginning, why on Earth wouldn’t a charity called Nature Conservancy (Nature Conservancy!) try to nip it in its damnable bud?

Jones calls fish farming “an opportunity for conservation” yet aquatic agribusiness uses nature’s fish to feed farm-bred fish. The tilapia farms rely on massive amounts of shipped soybean and grain feed. They’re like aquatic chicken farms. Waste and antibiotics seep from these sites into nature.

Marine mammals and fish can be hit by ships when they’re drawn to these industrial sites in search of food. Escapees from the captive-bred fish industry become introduced species in the surrounding waters.

The Best Answers Are So Much Simpler

Many of us have the ability and the privilege to avoid the fish aisle at the local grocery store. We can simply tell the grocers sustainable seafood is neither.

Indeed, we can avoid all the animal ag aisles. Among the world’s biggest water pollution problems is Nonpoint Source (NPS) runoff, much of it flowing from animal farms and ranches. The very same businesses that deem large carnivores expendable. By shifting to plant-derived proteins, we affect the demand side of ranching. We eat. We have power.

Other major sources of ocean filth are hundreds of millions of cars and boats and the oil we put in them. We have power over that too, when we make recreational choices and when we decide to support public transit or not. As the European Environmental Bureau puts the point: “The answer here is not simply to replace cars running on fossil fuels with electric cars – it is to also reduce private car use overall.”

Its penchant for sprawl has made the United States a leading energy consumer and a nation of 290 million cars. Low-density development is relatively high in greenhouse gas emissions, and a major water polluter, too.

Even fancy journal articles and stuff from climate think tanks tell us U.S. Americans love our cars, trucks, animal products, and lawns too much to change. They say policy makers must confine their planning to “realistic” responses.

But we’re grownups. We can accept that affluence based on destruction is meritless and unsatisfying. We can acknowledge that our consumption patterns affect what’s produced and what policy makers do and say. And we can change. We can live our lives based on the principles of caring, respect, and simplicity. We can stop investing in hype-addled surrogates, and become nature conservancies ourselves.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.