Monday, August 4, 2014

Ignore the Polar Bear

Last week I saw a consumer product with a photo of a polar bear.  Right next to the sweet polar bear was the tag line, "The Right Choice."  Searching the rest of the packaging, I was unable to find any reason this product was environmentally the right choice or better than the competition.  Polar bears have become the symbol for Saving the Earth and can be found on cleaning products, office supplies and even the back of buses.

In the past, we have talked about greenwashing, the practice of "advertising positive environmental practices while acting in the opposite way", and hoped it would subside. Sadly, it is alive and well in 2014 although as consumers have gotten more savvy, so have the claims being made. How can you avoid falling prey to greenwashing in the meeting and event industry?

Here are a few tips: 

Be informed. The first step is to make sure you research your supply chain. What does it mean when your suppliers say they are sustainable? Don’t be afraid to ask them about their specific practices.

Understand what terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ mean. Natural does not necessarily mean healthy--arsenic, uranium and formaldehyde are natural yet poisonous. And as far as non-toxic goes, everything is can be toxic, or deadly in sufficient dosages including oxygen, water and salt.

Be clear on the criteria used by ecolabels and certifications. The hotel sector has quite a few, such as Green Seal (US), Green Key (Canada) and Green Globe (Europe and Austral-asia). These are all third party certifications which look at sustainable operations. LEED certification looks at green construction. When researching ecolabels and certifications look for those using clear criteria, that adopt third party verification and report regularly on their environmental performance.

Participate in a back of house tour. This is the most effective way to ensure that vendors who claim to be green actually have sustainable practices in place. Ask to see the kitchen and areas where waste is sorted. Vendors who are being honest will not be fearful of letting you see what they do in the back of house. Note: this is a critical step which I missed once and learned the lesson the hard way.  Learn from my mistakes.

Be transparent in your own practices. Do what you say and be honest about what you do. Your risk of greenwashing in your organization is reduced when you are clear and up front about your commitment, intentions and actions.

Step away from the polar bear and remember the general rule of thumb applies: Caveat emptor – buyer beware!

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