Greenwashing in Vietnam’s Media: Report

Vietnam fared much better during the COVID-19 pandemic than its neighbors in Southeast Asia, having as of December 2020 fewer than 1400 cases and 40 deaths. Understandably, therefore, the COVID-19 did not figure into the country’s media discourse on green growth the same way it did in other places. A very different trend did, however: greenwashing.

An article on Vietnam’s leading Zing News frames new residential compound as part of country’s “green transition”
Apartment complexes framed as “green” despite lack of evidence 

In order to understand media narratives on green growth in Vietnam, I analyzed 100 articles across the four news outlets Zing News, Tien Phong, Da Nang online and the Magazine of Environment and found that a common trend runs through a quarter of all stories: the concept of “greenwashing” or “greenness”. These 25 stories simply provide misunderstanding and over-simplification of reporting on a true green transition. The majority can be seen discussing the real estate sector, which heavily promoted the development of “ecological” apartment compounds of office spaces as “green growth”. 

For example, two articles from Zing News mentioned “green construction” by simply reporting on the development of ecological residential areas. The first article, “Real Estate 2020: Investment flows towards green zones close to urban areas”, was a PR story for Aqua City complex south of Ho Chi Minh city, which was framed as part of a “green growth” movement in real estate development. 

In both of the news stories, the primary sources were business representatives or residents of the complexes who emphasized the advantages of living in a residential area with lower building density. There were no neutral or expert sources cited. The most common measure of building density is the “floor area ratio” (known variously as FAR, FSI, FSR, and plot ratio), which limits overdevelopment on any given plot. The residential areas with lower building density will have more land for tree planting, artificial ponds, and entertainment areas. 

This trend is currently framed in the media as “green construction”, although it is not always clear whether the extra land is effectively used for planting or not. Furthermore, sustainable construction as defined by the World Green Building Council is a much more holistic concept, which mandates that a building “reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment”. Factors such as efficient energy use to reduce emissions were not mentioned in any of the real estate narratives about this topic. 

The green office is another concept that has been appropriated by the media to promote real estate products. The concept of green office has been introduced for a decade by different non-governmental organizations (WWF in 2017), defined as “a workplace that reduces its carbon footprint and uses natural resources sustainably”. However, this term has been literally  understood as “planting more trees in the office” by the Ho Chi Minh city’s Youth Union, and reported on as such by Tienphong News. To sum up, due to limited time and space on news outlets, journalists in Vietnam tend to frame broader trends through a more “focused” window, which can easily lead to “greenwashing” if business sources control the narrative. 

Electric vehicles hailed as “green,” despite Vietnam’s electricity coming from coal 

Similarly, a “green transition” in the transportation sector was framed as the rise in electric bikes, scooters, and car products. Interestingly, electric scooters manufactured by the Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup were the subject of five different stories published by Zing News, or a third of all articles on the transportation sector; three of these were chosen for framing analysis. 

In all three stories, a “green transition” in transportation from gas to electric motorbikes was described as a fashionable lifestyle that was “dynamic”, “bold”, and “suitable for youth”. In one article from Zing titled “The Electric Scooter Market: What Differentiates Vietnamese Brand from Others”, the author also used a nationalistic frame to hail Vingroup’s electric bikes as the first to surpass Chinese brands in quality and design. After describing the electric scooter’s advantages, the article predicted that it will play a larger role in Vietnam’s transportation sector in the years to come. 

Discussions on both electric vehicles did not mention the fact that as Vietnam’s power mix was still largely dependent on coal, electrification of the transportation sector would not necessarily correspond with emissions reduction if an energy transition didn’t take place as well.

Want to read more about green growth reporting in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam? STAY TUNED for our full research report, “A Green New Deal for Southeast Asia? How COVID-19 Shifted Green Growth Narratives Across Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam” coming out Dec 18.