DON'T BOAST ABOUT SOMETHING THAT IS NOT TRUE
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 9: WE HAVE DUMPED NATURE UPON A PYRE
Type of greenwashing: Ambiguity and vagueness of claims
There are only a handful of places where people genuinely know they depend on nature and are aware of its complexity. In our region, this philosophy is embodied by the faraway Croatian islands, where tourists can get a taste of this concept. Nonetheless, even there, we see traces and ramifications of our deeds every step of the way. We have invented countless objects that bring advantages at first glance yet are impossible to get rid of afterwards.
Aren’t events dictated by the paradigm of constant growth a similar story? Just like the increasing number of highways factually does not reduce traffic jams, having more events does not justify their purpose. They do not give an answer to why we organise events in the first place. When faced with the looming catastrophe of the corona crisis, we finally came to terms with long-known alternative event solutions. Such alternatives are better options for particular event types and, more importantly, more environment-and-attendee-friendly.
Event organisers thus frantically seek to offset their carbon footprint. Be wary, however, not to find yourself in the situation Ryanair did in 2020 when they promoted themselves as the lowest emissions airline. The airline substantiated its statement by boasting that it flew the youngest aeroplane fleet in the EU. The Advertising Standards Agency immediately banned the largely fabricated claim. However, the most contradictory part of the campaign was typical of Ryanair. They passed on the carbon footprint to their passengers, who thus became responsible for Ryanair’s offset. The airline succeeded in doing this through the help of four partners (First Climate Uganda, Renature Monchique Portugal, Improved Kitchen Regimes Malawi, and Balikesir Wind Power Plant Turkey). The project made waves across the industry, upset passengers and stirred public opinion. Ryanair is, in general, a textbook example of greenwashing. To illustrate, read their article on striving to become carbon-neutral by 2050: https://corporate.ryanair.com/news/ryanair-aims-to-become-carbon-neutral-by-2050/.
It seems event organisers are bound to start acting more responsibly. With the imminent energetic tsunami, we will acknowledge that we need to treat the environment with utmost responsibility and care. Each of us influences in which direction our economy and society will develop.
How should we start organising environmentally-responsible events, then? We should address the multi-layered challenges systematically. Sustainable event organising must encompass a holistic approach on all levels: considering the supply chain and its impacts on the environment and employees. Not least, it is integral to recognise attendee behaviour. Take, for example, a trivial case from the field of mobility; if one purchases an electric car without changing their lifestyle, they do not do much for the environment. The prerequisite for a green transition is a systematic approach, meaning every stakeholder must play their part. That is one of the core reasons why accomplishing goals in sustainable event organising is onerous. We need honest pledges, concrete objectives, indices and extensive cooperation to succeed. The more we are connected and work interdisciplinary, the quicker we can reach set goals.
If organisers do the thinking instead of event attendees by planting trees, for instance, that is a praiseworthy solution. However, created emissions are rarely compensated entirely. In addition, such projects can be problematic from the aspect of local biodiversity. Poorly envisaged reforestation can do more harm than good. Therefore, such campaigns must be planned carefully. It is integral that the right tree sorts are planted, functioning in the local ecosystem. Too often, foresting projects include planting fast-growing trees or trees that bind most CO2.
Opportunities for reducing harmful effects on the environment arise in every event segment, starting with the event concept itself and choosing a location. If possible, do not set your event in a sensitive natural environment. Albeit such spots are alluring for hosting events, event organisers can refrain from destroying them or, better yet, improve their event’s prominence by opting for a less-sensitive location and effectively communicating their conscious decision.
The connectedness of every living being with nature is unequivocal and, at the same time, complex. Therefore, we should stop being ignorant, as it is time for ecological thoughts and words uttered by event organisers to become common practice. However, we should strive to avoid partial solutions. A typical example of this is electrical mobility. I will refer back to my introductory paradigm: whether nature perseveres with us chiefly depends on whether we know how to abstain from numerous habits. Directly connected with that is the question of what we need at events. To find an answer, we need to step out of the comfort zone and reset the meetings industry’s paradigm based on the concept of endless growth. Unfortunately, our planet does not allow such a concept, as we are reminded constantly.
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.