WHO TO REALLY TRUST?
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.
Case 10: GREEN MEETING CERTIFICATES - TOO MANY AND TOO CONFUSING?
Type of greenwashing: Deceiving and irrelevant labels
Your gut instinct is not fooling you. Greenwashing has spread like wildfire amid and after the corona crisis within the meetings industry. Corporations aim to sell us their green pledges, substantiated by countless certificates. However, note that companies waffle endlessly about their values and less about how they implement them. Greenwashing, for instance, occurs when a meeting destination encourages consumerism among clients by means of certificates. The practice resembles the model used by the fashion and food industry. Thus, we were not taken aback upon receiving numerous questions regarding event certification after several articles on greenwashing had been published.
Amid a heap of labels, it is challenging to recognise trustworthy certificates that ensure events and destinations are, in fact, environment-friendly.
To begin with, I wish to explain my stance on certification. I am an ardent supporter of personal certification because I believe it raises awareness about the necessity of sustainable event transformation. It is crucial for event organisers to embody the concept of sustainable event organisation. I know several event organisers that fiercely strive for sustainable events and are without formal certificates. They are riddled with doubt and distrust in certification systems. Our research, conducted in the autumn of 2021, confirmed their lack of trust. Event organisers expect independence, impartiality and objectivity. However, many certification systems do not meet such requirements.
Thus, it is not surprising that the most intricate, complex and objective standards of ISO 20121 and BS 8901 and the Austrian Eco Label reign at the top of the list.
I know from experience that other certification systems struggle to keep up, as they are not as detailed or focused on swift earnings. That is why there are over 80 eco labels and certificates in Europe alone. They differ in their purpose, criteria for acquirement and, most importantly, how they comprehend the meetings industry’s complexity. Within one event, there are a plethora of interlaying activities that need to be measured, calibrated and managed. Having organised several events, including Conventa, I know this is undisputedly true. In 2020, we evolved Conventa’s sustainable policy with a holistic system of managing the event’s measures. Our basis was the criteria set by Umanotera for sports events within the framework of their project Čista zmaga (www.cistazmaga.si) in 2013.
We defined 160 criteria for our event, thus resulting in 246 measurable goals. The most pressing topics when organising Conventa are mobility, the venue of Conventa, energy, social responsibility, and catering. Progress can only be achieved by close cooperation with partners, particularly when it comes to mobility, venue and catering.
The core of our experience is, in fact, utterly simple. If we wished to certify all sustainable measures at Conventa, the only trustworthy and credible option that remains is certification according to the ISO 20121 model. That can be conducted by a verified agency, such as Bureau Veritas or SIQ. The rest of the certification systems do not cover integral segments of our project. Therefore, we decided to adopt the model and recommendations of the Slovenian NGO Umanotera and tailor them to our needs. All our tools are available to all event organisers free of charge. Reducing the event’s impact on the environment sits at the heart of Conventa’s aspirations since its inception. That is why Conventa will measure its carbon footprint in cooperation with Climate Partner once again. Following the project, the organisers will create a detailed report summarising measures and recommendations for the entire meetings industry. All information regarding the event’s sustainable transformation is available at: https://conventa.si/green-conventa/. A report on Conventa’s environmental impact will be published in September.
The low grades speak for themselves and signal that event organisers hardly recognise certificates or simply do not know them. That means there is much work to be done, comparisons to be made and pointing out good and bad case practices.
The rule of thumb is to trust those who publish all criteria and methodology transparently. Most importantly, do not fall prey to the hauteur of inflated certificates that focus on earning money quickly and have become omnipresent in the meetings industry. Lately, the website https://alight.travel/ caught my eye, awarding hotels with points based on the hotel’s self-evaluation. Hotels thus evaluate themselves in the fields of community, water, management, energy, products, waste and indoors. Although the certification system is praiseworthy, it depends on a hotel’s green honesty and not an independent and trustworthy judgement.
We have difficulties trusting numerous certificates as they do not have enough transparent criteria and do not include independent verification. The golden standard in our industry remains the ISO 20121, currently the most credible.
Whatever your thoughts, the start of the journey should be measuring your event’s carbon footprint precisely. By measuring it, you will face the truth, which allows you to make the right choices. More importantly, it will redirect your focus to areas responsible for the most carbon footprint emitted.
We are destroying the planet collectively and facing the consequences together. Self-soothing with certificates does not help much. It is time for transparent and honest event transformation. Even more so, it is time for rational thinking when deciding between various certification systems.
Note: We look forward to hearing about your experiences and good practice cases in organising sustainable events.
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.
In Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is reporting a boom in the number of complaints about environmental claims – up from 117 in 2006 to 561 last year. “What we are seeing is claims about being carbon-neutral, zero-carbon emissions and use of words such as sustainable and organic,” says Lord Smith, chairman of the ASA.
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.
Slovenian Advertising Code on greenwashing
What the Slovenian Advertising Code says about greenwashing:
Article 17: ENVIRONMENTAL ARGUMENTATION
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.
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.
Comparisons are acceptable if the advertisers can prove that their product improves from an environmental perspective compared to their own or competitors’ products.
Claims and comparisons can be misleading if they leave out important information.
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.
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.
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.
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.