IATEFL Belfast 2022: Is ELT guilty of greenwashing? – James Taylor

James blogs at theteacherjames.Wordpress.com. He’s based in Brazil. This was part of the GISIG (Global Issues Special Interest Group) showcase.

Some headlines from the last month related to the climate crisis:

This is a grave situation, and is one we should keep in mind. But it can be hard for us to get our head around what’s happening in the world.

When it comes to the climate crisis, this is James’s position:

Greenwashing definition:

Adidas were prosecuted in the French courts for misleading advertising connected to greenwashing:

So what about ELT?

James did some informal research of his own. He was trying to choose books which he believed would be in circulation now. If they were older books, they tended to be exam preparation. He tended to look at higher-level books, as he felt like it may be possible that students at lower levels or younger learners might not have the language to discuss these issues in the same level of depth as higher levels or older learners.

These were the questions he looked at:

Does the book include related topics? These were the topics he found which could have been connected to the climate crisis in some way. He’s not arguing that they should have been connected to the climate crisis, but perhaps they could have been.

Which aspects were mentioned? These topics are more obviously related to the climate crisis – it was the main focus.

What terms were explicitly used? A larger font shows that it was used more commonly. ‘Nothing’ was the second most common thing he found – it was a lesson connected to the climate crisis in some way, but it wasn’t mentioned by name at all (though that specific term is newer – no other term was used instead).

Does the lesson suggest actions that can be taken to counteract the climate crisis? Does it focus on individual, social, scientific, corporate or governmental action? In Business English, the focus was more on the company than the individual – that had some of the better quality material. The overwhelming majority were about what you, the student, can do – what individual choices can you make.

Is a cause of the issues described mentioned? If an alien came to Earth and looked at ELT coursebooks, they wouldn’t necessarily know where climate change came from. There isn’t anyone to talk about (not blame!) The passive voice was often used – should we really be distancing ourselves from these actions? ‘No reason’ was also very common.

Accidental greenwashing

‘Carbon footprint’ was invented by BP, to promote the idea that climate change is not the fault of corporations, but individuals. It has been described as one of the most successful deceptive PR campaigns ever. Here are some reasons BP may wish to do this:

So carbon footprint lessons aren’t necessarily useful!


  • Look out for literal greenwashing.
  • Name some names! Not necessarily every time, but there should be some agency behind these actions.
  • Give learners the opportunity to properly discuss the issues.
  • Find ways to integrate the subject into related topics. For example, fashion, travel, consumption – even if it’s just one discussion question, it’s something.
  • Avoid euphemistic language and call it the climate crisis. This is the same language that’s being used elsewhere.
  • Less personal virtue, more big action.

We need to shift from learning about sustainability, climate change and the natural world to empowering learners to actually act.

What a student said:

Greta’s message:

Don’t forget this message if you put her in your materials!

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