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December 12, 2008

Nick Jones:Education is the one way to overcome greenwash

The managing director of conference bag company Nexus Collections says honesty and education is the key to reaping the full benefits of going green, not deception and poor communication.

Just two years ago, being environmentally responsible was unheard of within our industry. A fact proved by our own research which showed almost no requests for environmentally responsible products. Since then, as everyone knows, the momentum has gathered considerably. There are many individuals and organisations ‘making a difference’ and ‘going green’. But what does this really mean?

Many people are also now aware of another trend: ‘greenwashing’. 

This was clearly highlighted by the statistics recently released by Conference Care, which concluded among other damning facts that although 74% of the organisations surveyed claimed to have adopted a corporate social responsibility policy, only 22% purchased more than half their food from local sources.

Two sides
Personally I believe that there is a two tier element to greenwashing that people need to consider when they read the press, see adverts and consider sales pitches.  In my opinion, there are those who, quite frankly are making false claims as they have no research or knowledge to back them up, and there are those genuinely trying to make a researched difference, but somehow receive negative press when their results fail to meet newly perceived expectations.

In our particular niche, the former are abundant, with plenty of companies parading cotton bags as green simply because they are made from a plant deemed to be sustainable.  Clearly they are guilty of jumping on a band wagon with no research to back up their claims – the cultivation and processing of cotton relies on particularly unenvironmentally friendly methods due to a heavy reliance on pesticides and large quantities of hot water and chemicals.  On the other hand, there are companies trying hard who have yet to achieve their final goal.

Venues and other industry suppliers face similar problems, with one being tarnished because of another’s acts.  Those surveyed by Conference Care may well be trying hard to be green, but customer and price pressure simply mean that cannot fulfill all their goals.  Both reasons are understandable and, to be honest, forgivable – what is the point of being 100% environmentally friendly if you are 100% broke?

Building understanding
I personally believe that the key is education, from suppliers to clients.  If they all understand the situation you face and the steps you are taking they will be sympathetic, understand the cost increase or even do their part.  I have experienced this while creating our range of green bags, but thankfully we chose to educate our peers throughout the process, ensuring they understand the quality of the end product. 

Our research is heavily documented. We have produced a white paper and sought advice from a leading expert – all of which led to a genuinely environmentally responsible product.  Our education then moved one step further, to incorporate informative tags in the bags, explaining the source of the materials, research and environmental benefits of each bag.

But what next? How do we continue to dispel the greenwashers and maintain our environmentally responsible edge.  Quite simply, we don’t stop to rest on our laurels.  Every green statement needs to be backed up by hard evidence demonstrating the benefits.  When we are unable to do this it is far better to admit a failing than cover it over.  Honesty is vital.  People respect our green credentials as they stand. If we start lying it will destroy all our hard work.

Step by step
For example, we have recently acquired a manufacturing facility China, which we intend to make Fairtrade and green.  The Fairtrade Elements are feasible and relatively easy to incorporate when compared to the green objective.  Solar panels for water and heating, low energy lighting, year-on-year targets to reduce water consumption and energy consumption are difficult to achieve and in some cases extremely expensive.  Yes, there is a strong argument to say such changes are cost beneficial, but the benefits are long term when compared to the costs.  That doesn’t mean we don’t plan to try, it simply means we will take things one step at a time and continue to educate people as we progress.

I have sat through countless seminars discussing the need for a 20% global reduction in waste and consumption of natural resources and clearly believe that the people who need to be making an effort are those doing nothing – they need to stop the lies and do some good.  As for those suffering the bad press – get out there and start educating people, explain what you are trying to achieve and demonstrate the positive elements to your story.

Nick Jones is managing director of Nexus Collections

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