Hanging out the greenwashing

If you’ve ever said anything about the environment, no doubt your ears are burning. Maybe some hexes have been thrown your way.

As the globe heats up, tempers are rising regarding who’s carbon friendly and who’s just full of hot air. So much so, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is poking around those who claim “carbon-neutral” products, yet are really offering marketing spin on hot air. The body has called for comments, before releasing a guidance paper in May.

It’s in the pudding
Earlier this year, the ACCC released a document called “Green marketing and the Trade Practices Act”. Aimed at all marketers, the document set out simple guidelines – basically commonsense – regarding claims about how products impacted (or not) on the environment.

Two of the major points were that all claims should be able to be substantiated and that they should be specific. Unqualified and general statements are taboo. For instance, a manufacturer of “environmentally friendly” bags claimed its bags would biodegrade in 28 days due to being made of tapioca starch. But without being able to substantiate these declarations, it was a big whack with a big, expensive, legal stick for them, for engaging in “false or misleading conduct, or conduct likely to mislead or deceive”.

Six patterns
Those who just “make claims” are contributing to the general scepticism, as the ACCC points out. It’s from these broad-brushed assertions that bad feeling also emanates. So it comes back to proof. If you’re claiming something, can you prove it?

Acknowledging the depth and breadth of the problem, last year TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc, put out a “green paper” studying environmental claims in the North American consumer markets. TerraChoice is a Canada-based environmental consulting agency, which looks after the Environmental Choice Program for that nation’s government. Similarly to The Australian Psychological Society Ltd’s viewpoint, reviewed last issue, TerraChoice talks about significant consequences of “pervasive” greenwashing.

Again, similarly to the Australian society, among those problems was that “greenwashing may create cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims. Consumers, particularly those who care most about real environmental progress, may give up on marketers and manufacturers, and give up on the hope that their spending might be put to good use. This would eliminate a significant market-based, financial incentive for green product innovation and leave committed environmental advocates with government regulations as the most likely alternative”.

Of course, the squandering of an environmental benefit due to misleading claims is another worry. From its research, TerraChoice identified six patterns in greenwashing, over every industry, which it has dubbed the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”.

These are: the sin of the hidden trade-off, the sin of no proof, the sin of vagueness, the sin of irrelevance, the sin of fibbing and the sin of lesser of two evils. And of the 1,018 products it reviewed (across industry types), frighteningly, TerraChoice found all but one committed at least one of the “sins of greenwashing”.

True blue
What sets apart the spinners and the doers? Certifications, such as ISO14001, ISO9001 and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), are basics. But then, as pointed out last issue, ISO certifications can be used as wallpaper if the full intentions and spirit of the programme are not followed.

So what else to do the hands-on-hearts green printers do? Well, they make themselves accountable. They publish data. Publicly publish it. Rather than saying “we’ve reduced our energy consumption”, they publish the data (on their website usually) that shows their energy reduction volumes or statistics. Rather than hiding this as “commercial in confidence” stuff, they are open about these figures because they’re the ones who really care. Hiding it is a bit like kidding yourself, and if you really care about something, you don’t kid yourself.

That, perhaps, is another gauge: they really do care. It’s not just about certifications and environmental awards (although these can be another good gauge). For really green printers, it’s an holistic thing. It’s about light bulbs and recycling, recycling rags, operating from a passive building that doesn’t rely alternatively on air-conditioning and heating, as well as waste management, solvent reduction and aiming to run near carbon neutral.

Often, they’ll develop their own programmes, bouncing off existing ones, but adding areas they feel need addressing.

Another good indicator is independent auditing of published figures. A complicating factor here though can be cost: it costs money to be independently audited. For some printers, this might just be money they don’t have, or can’t justify going towards that. For them, it will have to be enough that they are open and honest enough to publish their stats.

One thing that’s not an indicator, is size: large or small, it makes no difference.

Certifications and awards
But looking at ISO and FSC certifications, plus environmental awards, what do the companies that hold them believe they have done for business?

David Fuller, MD of Focus Press, South Strathfield NSW, says, “They help keep our name in the public domain. Because of our leadership role in the industry, we are given opportunities which would not have been there otherwise.”

Mark Randles, GM of Print Bound, Blackburn, Vic, says, “The ISO 14001 and FSC certifications ensure we are continually reducing our environmental footprint and helps support a green culture among our staff and clientele. The prestigious Premier’s award for sustainability has provided us with recognition, and further adds credibility to our environmental initiatives.”

Rodney Wade, environmental and technical manager at Finsbury Green (based in SA, Vic and NSW), says, “Work for the environment well enough, and long enough, and someone will notice. Finsbury Green doesn’t work on becoming a sustainable business just to rack up awards.”

Mystique, in Rowville, Vic, is the first, and only, printer in Australia to be certified under the Greenhouse Friendly programme by the former Australian Greenhouse Office (with the change of federal government, the AGO is now called the Department of Climate Change).

Mystique’s environmental manager, Mat Eldred, says they became a Greenhouse Challenge Plus Member in 2006. Curious about what was involved in becoming carbon neutral, Eldred spoke with organisations such as Landcare, Greenfleet and the AGO.

“As the carbon neutral concept was in its infancy within Australia, it was hard to find any solid information. Landcare understood the concept and was in the early stages of setting up projects to be certified under the NSW scheme – which products and services cannot be certified under. Greenfleet was already set up, but I felt they offered no real support to us as a business. What I found was that Greenhouse Friendly had been around since 2001, and had a rigorous framework in place, based on international best practice. It was by far the most comprehensive certification process that we have been involved in! However, the certification had creditability and we felt it was perfect for Mystique.”

And positive it’s certainly been. “As an organisation, we are proud to be the only printer within Australia to have achieved this certification and proud to have been involved in the scheme in the early stages. We regularly receive positive feedback from our clients who are pleased to be able to choose an environmentally friendly option. It has given us an opportunity to retain our existing clientele as they are less likely to go elsewhere, knowing that with us, they are reducing the impact their business choices have on the environment.”

Rob Nugent, commercial manager with Vega Colour Group, Notting Hill, Vic, says, “If you’re serious about being environmentally friendly, you have to meet the requirements of that ISO standard, because it makes you give a commitment to ongoing improvement – that’s part of the deal. It doesn’t enforce you, but encourages you pretty heavily towards greening your supply chain into the future.

“Recently, we sent out a questionnaire to all of our suppliers asking them what they were doing about greening their part of the supply chain, and what environmental standards they were meeting. We had a mixed response. Some haven’t responded at all! But there are a few guys that were very impressed and got back to us straight away, which was impressive itself.”

Andrew Perry, marketing consultant and environmental systems manager with AT+M Integrated Marketing (formerly AT+M Sprinta Print), in Launceston, Tas, says certifications are vital.

But they found initial reaction frustrating from the lack of education people generally had on what it meant – “even in our quite pristine little state of Tasmania”.

Cost versus altruism
Here’s a funny point: all the “real deal” green printers ProPrint spoke to said eco-friendliness was actually less expensive in the long run.

Perhaps Andrew Perry summed it up best, thus, “It had to be a viable project. We are capitalists at heart. There have been cries that environmental issues won’t be addressed until they’re economically viable; that’s just the reality of commerce and Western culture. But I think what’s happening is that technology is allowing this to happen where, even five years ago, it wasn’t cost effective being environmentally responsible. Five years ago it cost you money and you went out of business: you died from starvation on your soapbox. Not now.”

Rodney Wade continues the theme. “It is important to say that we do not profess to be environmentalists; however, we are trying to do everything we can within the constraints of our commercial reality. In coming to this point we are pleased and proud of what has been achieved, though there is still much to do, not only in our own company but within an industry that remains sceptical about environmental reform.

“Finding our own formula for a sustainable business isn’t easy. We are constantly tinkering with ours. We became acutely aware that to achieve long-term success we must take responsibility for the environmental and social impact of our policies, practices and decision making.

“In many ways we have always accepted that ‘greening’ the company was not just a good idea at the time or a cynical public relations exercise, but would call for continuous investment over the lifetime of the company. For this reason we have never been afraid to seek rigorous independent evaluation of our environmental performance. By publishing an Environmental Report which has morphed into a Sustainability Report we have imposed on ourselves the discipline of both maintaining existing standards and demonstrating year on year improvements. Environmental leadership has become part of our corporate culture. We like it that way.”

Rob Nugent says when a far-reaching plan is developed, there can be a mix of immediate and long-term paybacks. “What we’ve done is accept the fact that the payback on some is a longer period of time, but there is a payback there. There are a lot of things you can do where you can get the financial payback if you’re willing to invest in the long term.”

Mystique’s Mat Eldred says, “All our eco-friendly certifications are a considerable investment in the early stages. However, this is a cost that we are prepared to absorb and to remain competitive we cannot pass this cost on. However, we feel that we are making the right decisions for the environment and we have ‘put our money where our mouth is’. We feel that as a business we need to make sound environmental and commercial decisions and we believe that in the long term, these decisions will enhance our bottom line.”

Mark Randles has a similar thought. “Yes, there is an initial capital outlay with many of our environmental initiatives; however, there are short payback periods followed by long-term gains.”

Focus Press’s David Fuller has a similar viewpoint, although he’s less positive about the future of those who pursue no environmental improvements.

“Frankly, I believe any company who has not focused their manufacturing practices towards resource efficiency will by now be manufacturing at a higher cost than those of us who have focused on being efficient. By ‘being efficient’, I am extending the old understanding of the term. Now it includes understanding your use of raw materials and waste products per dollar of sales and targeting the reduction of waste and raw materials.”

Scott Print’s Tim Scott says, “The concept of a ‘green printing company’ is not something that can be turned off and on at the ad hoc request of a select client base. It is a long-term commitment from both management and staff. And once started, there is no going back. Regular audits require the business to show constant improvement against Key Performance Indicators, which also allow management to measure the dollar savings that an accredited Environmental Management System can bring to the bottom line.”

Before joining the family business, while working at the Western Australian Department of Environment, Scott helped develop and implement, with the assistance of the PIAA, WA’s Green Stamp accreditation programme, so his motivation to roll out environmental initiatives within Scott Print is high.

Consumer cynicism
Scott says, “Unfortunately many clients do not consider the triple-bottom-line benefits – the social, economic and environmental impacts – when making a decision on where to place their print. This is an area of our marketing that we work very hard to promote; however, as an industry, we all need to stress the benefits and environmental sustainability of the printing industry as a whole.”

David Fuller says, “While it has been in government and corporate sights, as far as policy goes, purchasing policies do take a while to filter down to the crusty old purchasing people and to energise them to change their purchasing parameters.

“That said, I have noticed a great gathering of momentum in relation to demand for more environmentally friendly printed products and services.”

Burn them at the stake? No …
As for what to do with greenwashers, genuinely green printers, while frustrated by the obfuscation these shysters cause, believe they’ll trip themselves up. Mark Randles speaks for many when he says, “We don’t believe they are sustainable long term.”

Mat Eldred says, “You gain nothing by being negative about a competitor. We feel that as consumers become more environmentally aware, they will start to see through greenwashers and see them for what they are: good marketers.”

Rodney Wade says, “Greenwashing is not unique to our industry. And while the ACCC is starting to take corporates to task about their marketing I suspect that it may not get down to the small enterprise level that represents most of the printing industry. Federal legislation would be good but I’m not holding my breath. So I guess raising this in the industry press helps to get the debate going.

“Ultimately though, I believe that anyone who claims to be green must be prepared to fully disclose their activities and prove that they do what they say they do, by publishing a report, that is independently audited and that uses the Department of Climate Change standards as their benchmark for the science.”

Andrew Perry says, “The ACCC can spend zillions of dollars to go and put them in gaol but, in reality, that’s just a waste of resources. I think commerce, human nature and public relations will form its own environment. People will put claims out and people will counterclaim it. It’s a bit like the internet; it will become self-policing. Consumers will become hyper-sceptical.”

“Ultimately we’ve done it to underpin the commercial benefit, from a production viewpoint it just makes sense. We do it because it’s economically viable. But by achieving a reputable certification, we’ve had our claims substantiated.”

Rob Nugent also believes consumer education is the key. “That’s what we’re focusing on at the moment, helping people make environmentally friendly choices. If they choose not to use us because the price isn’t right or they don’t like the colour of our shoes or something, that’s fine, but at least we’re offering ourselves as an option to make the right choice to help contribute towards care of the environment.”

David Fuller thinks there should be more information available, in simple language, about green manufacturing and carbon footprint.

Take it out there
Again, as an industry we need to think about and debate issues such as, do we “out” the greenwashers? Does there need to be stringent testing and licensing before a company can use “green” in any claims?

Taking on board the comments from those above, perhaps one positive thought is that eventually the peddlers of falsehoods will run out of steam. Which will leave them wading about in more than a sextet of sewage…

But no man is an island. To educate consumers on greenwashing, it’s up to the whole industry. As Rob Nugent says, “If it was just one person trying to do it on their own, I don’t think it would ever get done.”

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