Why we should care about Greenwasting just as much as Greenwashing

Greenwashing refers to disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. In a time of increasing focus on environmental issues, greenwashing has caused a lot of concern, as it takes a lot of focus and resources away from environmental efforts that make a real difference and impact. In this article we introduce a complementary concept, namely that of Greenwasting, which describes failed green initiatives by companies or organizations that are otherwise regarded as green.

As the effects of climate change, including the increasing urban heat island effects and its negative effect on human health get more attention, large climate-action initiatives have become widespread. The planting of trees is often an important component of these initiatives, as illustrated by the examples of city initiatives such as the One Million Trees planting campaign in New York City and the World Bank’s 1 billion tree planting campaign. But climate action with a tree and green space focus comes in many forms, including green streets initiatives, carbon neutral parks, green infrastructure for stormwater regulation.

At the same time the challenge of greenwashing is gaining more attention, as large companies and sometimes even governments are using green initiatives to convey the public that they are environmentally sound, even though their actions often have any real impact when it comes to reducing negative environmental impacts of their activities on the environment. The term does, however, only include the actions taken by companies and organizations that needs to “wash” themselves green, thereby implying that their core actions have inherent negative impact on the environment, for example through contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, either directly or indirectly.

We argue that the time has come to take a broader perspective and to take a critical look at environmental initiatives that  often emerge from good intentions and are presented to the public as environmentally sound and meaningful. A tree planting campaign being organized by e.g. an NGO, a government agency, or a housing company can seldom be regarded as greenwashing since their actions are not focused on providing a ’green veil’ over their harmful core activities. However, several studies have shown that quite a few of these initiatives and campaigns do not deliver on their promises and states goals. In the recent article The Darker Side of Tree-Planting Pledges several failed tree planting campaigns were described. One example is the tree planting initiative in Copenhagen, where 100 000 trees were planted, but “six years later, many of the saplings have already withered and died”. Intentions will often have been good, and are part of the core activities of these organisations, but implementation has failed due to e.g., limited availability of resources for appropriate follow-up and stewardship, and a focus on numbers (of trees) rather than long-term sustainable impact. Often limited resources could have been spent much more effectively and efficiently, for example by focusing more on quality rather than quantity, and by having more realistic goals. This wasteful use of resources for greening can be defined as Greenwasting.

The new term Greenwasting introduced here refers to a situation in which a public, private, or civic society organization consciously or unconsciously wastes opportunities and resources to make a positive contribution to the environment and the fight against climate change. This can relate to, as mentioned, not taking care of new trees or by exaggerating the expected positive impacts of projects or downplaying possible negative ones.

Lately the term Nature Based Solutions (NBS)has been used more and more often. Not seldom in the same sentence as the more common term Ecosystem Services. The various ways in which NBS are conceptualized stress the need for sustainability and benefits to nature. Thus a tree in a pot or a box that will need constant care in the form of fertilization and watering will never be able to become a ‘true’ nature-based solution. The same goes for projects that intend to do good but end up Greenwasting due to lack of focus on longer-term sustainability.

The new term Greenwasting can help broader the debate on what environmental initiatives should be prioritized, given the limits of available resources and the urgency of climate change and other environmental challenges. Investing in proper management, rather than increased numbers of trees, might have a bigger impact on both the climate and human health. Greenwasting is distinctly different from Greenwashing, but probably just as important and potentially harmful.

Those organisations that genuinely want to promote and implementing good and sustainable environmental projects and actions deserve our full support and recognition. By applying a Greenwasting lens in addition to that of Greenwashing, a more critical and comprehensive review of projects and initiatives will be possible, enhancing our knowledge and expertise. This will then stimulate the implementation of nature-based solutions that are sustainable, resource efficient, and lead to a net positive impact on nature and the fight against climate change.

Exampels of Greenwaisting

A construction company is building a carbon neutral new building. In that process they want to account for every single kilogram or pound of carbon dioxide and carbon that is being released, but also captured, within the project. Recently we have seen companies using the carbon negative footprints that planted trees can contribute to. With tools such as i-Tree we can now calculate very thoroughly how much carbon a planted tree can mitigate during its lifetime. But if that tree does not thrive, andthrive and dies before the carbon capturing ability that the construction accounted for is being reached, the total effect will be net carbon emission. And even worse, sometimes the tree dies before it has reached its carbon capture break-even point from propagation, this will contribute even more to the carbon emission.

A housing company wants to promote self-sufficiency and circular economy. To do so, they provide some of the tenants with wooden pallets and peat basedpeat-based soil in bags. Year one the plants thrive and produce a handful of tomatoes. The next year the peat-based soil is starting to be impoverished and not so many tomatoes grow. On the third year the tenants don’t want to grow no more since the harvest was so poor last year. Without proper management and education to the tenants the once so good initiative has lead to a waste of resources.