green_washing
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GREENWASHING WITH PLANTING TREES

Planting trees to compensate for the carbon footprint of events has become regular practice globally. Although planting trees is a noble act, it can be misused for the purpose of greenwashing. It is not uncommon that an authentic story becomes overflown with buyers of CO-2 indulgences, who deem they are building their reputation and image in the eyes of sustainably-aware stakeholders. Such consumers are guided by a simple logic dictating that environmentally-harmful actions are acceptable in return for adequate payment. Our case story will showcase how blazingly fast the industry can find itself on the thin ice of sustainable nothingness.

The editorial board of Kongres Magazine has been closely following and analysing various sustainability marketing campaigns. It seems their numbers have skyrocketed this year. As it turns out, many of them are misleading and purposefully used by greenwashers to increase sales or improve a company’s reputation. By doing so, they deceive well-intentional consumers and, ultimately, do not contribute to solving ecological and social issues. It is vital to stay aware of the ways in which they attempt to outwit us. Recognising greenwashing is how we can reduce its influence on our choices.

We have decided to prepare a series of articles that will uncover such practices and, hopefully, contribute to a more responsible meetings industry.

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Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986. While on an expedition to Samoa, he was greatly upset by the hotel sign concerning the reuse of towels. He concluded that its purpose was solely a strategy to lower expenses instead of the hotel’s sustainable and responsible aspirations.

Westerveld was the first to use the term greenwashing in his expert article, and the rest is history. The term has survived till today and encompasses all areas of sustainability, including gender equality, poverty, hunger, health, education, paid work etc.

There are several typical examples of greenwashing. They have been around for some time, yet, we continue to be duped by them. We have summarised the most typical examples of greenwashing below:

1. Presenting information selectively

An example of greenwashing is emphasising environment-friendly information whilst withholding negative information. A typical example is ignoring the carbon footprint of event transfers which can amount to 75% of an event’s entire carbon footprint.

2. Lack of proof to back up claims

Let us suppose a company claims their event is green or eco-friendly but does not enclose any concrete proof. They should at least calculate their event’s carbon footprint and support it with a certificate issued by an official institution.

3. Ambiguity and vagueness of claims

Another way of misleading is using loose and undefined terms that are nearly impossible to understand in one way. A recurring example, for instance, is stating that an event is carbon-neutral without elaborating what that stands for.

4. Deceiving and irrelevant labels

Companies will often refer to certificates and labels that, in fact, do not exist or are misleading. Lately, there have been cases of green venue finders with no real foundation. This type of deception is embodied by companies that sell “products without CFC”, even though chlorofluorocarbons are forbidden by law.

5. Highlighting the lesser evil

Event organising is environmentally unfriendly. Hence, the claim that one event is greener than another is plainly false.

6. Selling lies

On occasions, companies choose to proclaim lies. Making false claims, certificates, and inventing facts will mislead customers.

7. Meaningless labels

Certificates, labels and awards can often have little or no meaning. In some cases, organisations even award themselves with certificates or endorsements not backed by any authority.

There are even cases when companies tell outright lies. Sooner or later, such practices are exposed, and information about them spreads like wildfire. We will uncover the first example of such deceit.

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Case 3: PLANTING TREES

The most common way of purchasing indulgences within the meetings industry is planting trees

Type of greenwashing: Presenting information selectively

A renowned and esteemed Slovenian event pledged to become carbon neutral by 2021. The praiseworthy strategy commenced by focusing on energy management within the congress centre where the event took place. With the help of measurements by an international corporation, their findings were to show how 120 planted trees could neutralise the CO2 emissions caused by hosting the event. In the end, they decided to plant 200 trees to ensure success. Experts in forestry joined their planting mission.

The message of the campaign can be easily misleading. Not a single word mentioned the compensation for carbon footprint concerning attendee transport, responsible for a tremendous, perhaps, the greatest, percentage of an event’s carbon footprint. Moreover, they overlooked that the CO2 footprint is created by event organisers when managing, communicating and marketing an event. Likewise, exhibition equipment, food and beverages, hotel accommodation, waste management, and, not least, responsible water management contribute to the amount of emitted carbon footprint.

To understand the depth of the problem, event organisers should consider a simple example. An average car emits around 150 grams of CO2 per kilometre. Hence, if we drove such a car for approximately 10.000 kilometres per year, we would need to plant 62 trees to compensate for the emitted CO2. Environmental maths and balance are, unfortunately, often ruthless.

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Planting trees should, most importantly, teach event attendees to respect nature and its omnipresence.

The reason for the abundance of such campaigns is utterly simple. Planting trees is one of the most effortless activities to become green in the complex process of organising events. Beyond that, significantly more knowledge, effort and energy are needed. Just consider the complexity of sustainable mobility. At Conventa tradeshow, where we have strived for green mobility for the past fourteen years, this segment is accountable for 70 per cent of the CO2 footprint. We consider ourselves fortunate if and when we can convince 30% of attendees to opt for sustainable transportation.

Thus, how can one recognise campaigns with less sincere purposes amid a sea of them? In my opinion, the first step is to check whether an event has a holistic strategy to reduce its carbon footprint. More importantly, the campaign should candidly publish its criteria on why and how they decided to plant trees. The criteria should be, furthermore, published and documented publicly. The least one expects is that it is possible to access the green strategy, action plan and reasons behind a campaign on the event’s website. Another prerequisite for ensuring the credibility of a campaign is to publish a calculation explaining why 120 trees need to be planted, as mentioned above.

Further doubts about sincerity occur when international corporations or public interest lobbies join planting trees campaigns as project partners. If the goals of the planting campaign are explicitly short-term, the campaign’s genuineness is likely amiss. Most often, these are cases of purchasing indulgences and extending vague apologies. However, if a campaign helps mould the sustainable habits of event attendees, it is my honour to involve myself in such noble aspirations. Planting trees should, most importantly, teach event attendees to respect nature and its omnipresence while reminding them of the importance of staying moderate and living sustainably.

On the bright side, the Slovenian forestry profession is keen on helping event organisers on their path of sustainable transformation. Slovenia belongs to Europe’s most forest-covered countries, with 58% of the country’s surface represented by forests. According to the percentage of forests, Slovenia is ranked third in the European Union. The Slovenian Faculty of Forestry intertwines co-natural, sustainable and multifunctional forest management. They are among the leading experts in forestry worldwide, who ardently outline that 98% of forests can restore naturally. Nonetheless, they emphasise that forests can also be restored by planting trees. The help of expert foresters is, to put it mildly, advisable.

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Planting trees should not be a moment when a wallet compensates an individual or company’s moral compass.

The most alarming example of purchasing indulgences is tree sponsorship. Upon reading the whole story, it is reminiscent of a known historical example, where purchasing indulgences compensated for committed sins. Thus, individuals are once more eligible to sin if their wallets allow. The message is unequivocal: pollute if you can afford it.

We should never ever see the noble act of planting trees as a liberal indulgence or a way of trading one’s sins. Planting trees should not be a moment when a wallet compensates an individual or company’s moral compass.

It seems planting trees is insufficient for event attendees to embark on more responsible paths. Therefore, commencing such campaigns should be conducted carefully and wisely. Once participants learn a campaign is nothing less than a publicity stunt and washing guilt away, an erosion of trust in the event’s credibility will follow.

About the author

Gorazd Čad is a seasoned meeting planner who has dedicated 25 years of his life to the meetings and events industry. He witnessed the fall of Yugoslavia, the establishment of independent Slovenia, adapted to the internet revolution of the ’90s, overcame the economic crisis of 2008, the 2010 eruption of an Icelandic volcano, and the 2019 meetings industry burnout, 2020’s corona crisis and more. Among other things, Gorazd Čad is a professor of geography and history who is sincerely worried about the planet’s future. He strives for events that will be environmentally friendly and responsible to attendees and society.


Note: We look forward to your opinion about such practices. Feel free to comment and send us further examples of greenwashing. We will inspect them and write additional articles about them in Kongres Magazine.

Slovenian Advertising Code on greenwashing

What the Slovenian Advertising Code says about greenwashing:

Article 17: ENVIRONMENTAL ARGUMENTATION

17.1
Advertising that includes environmental argumentation should be presented in a manner that does not exploit the consumer’s environmental concern or his potential lack of knowledge about environmental themes. It should not contain claims or visual representations that could, in any way, mislead the consumers about products’ benefits from an environmental viewpoint or the environmental activities the advertiser will conduct. Messages can apply to concrete products or activities; they cannot, however, unjustifiably imply that they cover all activities of a company, group or sector.

17.2
Claims concerning environmental preservation are not allowed to be used groundlessly. Claims such as environment-friendly, completely biodegradable, greener, friendlier or organic may be acceptable, provided the advertisers prove their truthfulness.

17.3
Comparisons are acceptable if the advertisers can prove that their product improves from an environmental perspective compared to their own or competitors’ products.

17.4
Claims and comparisons can be misleading if they leave out important information.

17.5
When scientific opinions are divided, and the results are not final, the advertisement has to make that clear. An advertiser cannot quote that their claim is generally accepted if that is not the case.

17.6
In case a product never had any evidently harmful effects on the environment, the advertisement cannot suggest that its structure was altered to make it more environment-friendly. It is, however, lawful to quote claims about a product whose composition has been altered or has been used hitherto without ingredients that are known to be harmful to the environment.

17.7
The use of lesser-known expert terms should be avoided. If the use of a scientific term is unavoidable, its meaning should be clear and understandable or additionally explained.

17.8
A broader explanation of the most commonly used claims and terms is defined in the International Chamber of Commerce Code of Advertising and Marketing Practices.

For more information please check: https://iccwbo.org/content/uploads/sites/3/2018/09/icc-advertising-and-marketing-communications-code-int.pdf