Greenwashing: who’s keeping the climate-change bastards honest?

Green is the new black.

No longer do you need to have flowing (unkempt) tresses and talk in a substance-influenced manner. Today, everyone wants to be environmentally conscious. Even primary school children are taught about environmental matters (pity they’re not also taught a bit about printing, but that’s another matter ).

Nope, today if you’re green, you’re trendy. And that’s part of the problem.

In a pre-federal election edition late last year, The Australian Psychological Society Ltd ran an article entitled ‘Greenwashing, spin, and climate change porn’.

In the piece, the society said, “The issue of environmental ‘noise’ is not just an election phenomenon. As more businesses promote themselves as environmentally sustainable, it starts getting difficult to differentiate between organisations genuinely committed to environmental sustainability, and those that are ‘greenwashing’ (making a practice or product seem more environmentally sound than it actually is).

“A year ago, it was the sceptics versus the believers. Now it’s one green business or one green solution over another. Everyone wants our vote, our patronage, our attention.”

Spinning top
And so it is with print. In fact, our industry probably has the “green spin bug” more than anyone else. Why? Quite simply, because print sits at the coalface. It’s print that uses paper – by the (non-replanted) forest load, pouring chemicals into waterways and unnecessarily bleaching paper. Well, that’s what you might think if you read the spin for the “other side”, those who will have everyone believe that making and using paper is akin to selling your soul to Monty Burns.

In the past, print companies with an environmental conscience were seen as a “bit weird”. But, as The Australian Psychological Society Ltd’s “greenwashing” and “climate change porn” piece pointed out: a year on, and all is different. Opinion change has been that quick.

So perhaps what we’re seeing in “greenwashing” is an attempt to be seen at the cutting edge (as opposed to actually being at the cutting edge). Maybe it’s to counteract such “anti spin” as “all printers are bad” that has seen print marketers go into overdrive and claim any eco-friendly points they can. Even if those points are a bit browned off.

Don’t flush now
But herein lies the problem: a business cannot change that quickly. It simply can’t. Sure, you can instantly instruct staff to turn off lights and wear weather, not air-conditioner, appropriate clothes to work. You can even instruct them not to flush, unless it’s in everyone’s best interests that they do so the old “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” line.

But you can’t change years and years of business practices overnight. IPA usage, VOCs, water usage, paper sources, waste management, solvent usage, carbon usage – none of this is easy to change quickly, let alone instantly.

So here comes the spin. “We use recycled paper – we’re environmentally friendly.” “We use soy and vegetable inks – we’re environmentally friendly.”

There’s also the “we print waterless – we’re environmentally friendly”, but that’s a whole different ball game, because that’s just one side of one factor among many.

And on it goes.

Think of this comparison: George Bush speaks English (apparently), but the fact it’s his native tongue doesn’t make him an authority on it. Doing bits and pieces does not an expert maketh.

Junk science
Here’s one line that’s had a better workout than Kostya Tszyu’s gloves: “We’re ISO certified – we’re environmentally friendly.”

The ISO 14001 standard is an excellent template for operation. It can be used to the fullest extent, or the absolute minimum can be done. The ISO framework can be used to establish some strong internal checks and balances, as well as targets and objectives. But it can also be used as wall decor: a business can pay the money, get it, then do the absolute minimum to get away with it.

Why? It can all be too hard, or too expensive to follow through beyond getting the piece of paper.

Hearts of green
Why would anyone unnecessarily burden themselves with paperwork (irony realised), rules and regulations on how to run a business with as small an ecological footprint as possible?

Short answer: because they genuinely care. It’s their personal ethos. Such tightly held personal tenets flow easily into business culture. No going to the marketing manager for them and saying, “what can we say that will tell everyone we’re green”.

They live eco-friendly practices as naturally as Buddhists don’t step on ants.

The problem for print is, they often don’t tell enough people about it. Sometimes it’s those who hold the best green credentials who don’t blow their own trumpet. In the non-diaphanous nature of private business, who really knows what happens if no one really says?

It’s a classic case of PR 101: saying nothing let’s the armchair experts fill the void. In this case, it’s the greenwashers making more noise than a pack of galahs. And who can ignore a pack of galahs?

Tears for tiers
There has been some talk about a national three-tiered process being introduced for printers to gain ISO 14001 – somewhat along the lines of the West Australian model.

That has strengths and drawbacks. A strong point is that it encourages environmental reform in the printing industry. A drawback is that a company might attain level one, which would be around 30 per cent of 14001 standard, then hit the market spruiking they are an environmental printer – the old “we print on recycled paper, so we must be an environmental printer” stuff. This would surely add to the fuzziness and confusion print procurers face.

Perhaps another way to encourage deeper industry participation at a wider level would be through national, not just piecemeal state-based, environmental print awards. Those entering would be open to scrutiny, which is always a positive.

Weighing up waterless
Regarding the “we print waterless – we’re environmentally friendly” line, in-depth discussion of this topic has been done before, and is beyond the scope of this piece.

Suffice it to say, waterless printing requires big chillers to cool down presses. Generally, these sit outside the building, because they tend to be large and rather noisy, and can draw vast amounts of electricity.

Alcohol-free presses usually drop over 100 litres each week, which certainly sees annual water wastage add up. However, tailored filters can dramatically reduce this to just a few hundred litres a year, over a whole plant.

But any water wasted is too much, and this piece is not attempting to argue against waterless printing. To use less water is admirable; with much of Australia gripped by drought, it certainly makes sense. Yet to use up proportionately larger amounts of other resources, such as electricity – with all its black-balloon-releasing-greenhouse-gas-generating outcomes – to save water, seems to defeat the true purpose of “conservation”.

Feeling black?
So back to why The Australian Psychological Society Ltd would publish an article about “greenwashing”. The society actually runs a regular “saving the planet” column, produced by its Public Interest team. In these pieces, the team investigates how psychology can help address the growing environmental crisis facing the planet. While this might seem a bit “out there”, it neatly acknowledges that people – consumers and businesses – might feel “confused, overwhelmed, cynical or fed up” about all the green claims flooding our senses.

The society says, “Fortunately, psychologists have many ways of helping people to stay engaged and optimistic, and to keep on participating energetically in solutions to create sustainable ways of living on the planet.”

The answer? The truth. The good news stories. Greenwashers have pervaded all areas of Australian business, as companies realise the challenges society faces, and simultaneously see the potential of being green. Consumers don’t know if it’s allegedly or not. Their perceptions are blunted to just seeing “green”.

Go tell it on the mountain
For print, finding the truth will mean some soul searching. Do we out the greenwashers? Those who claim to be environmentally responsible, when all they do is use recycled paper and soy inks? Does there need to be stringent testing? Licensing to use “green” in any claims?

As an industry we need to think and debate these issues. Do those who are truly green, living their personal ethos in their business culture, really want to be tarred with the greenwashers’ brush?

Think about it: do you want your reputations trashed by the “greenwashers”?
On publicly available data, there are probably only six legitimately green printers in Australia, but there are a helluva lot more claiming that status.

In a free market, it’s buyer beware, but as an industry, we have to help the buyer. It’s time to stand up.

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