Beware the Polar Bear

Beware the Polar Bear

Last week I saw a consumer product with a photo of a polar bear prominently displayed on the package. Right next to the smiling 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 the right environmental choice or more sustainable than the competition. Polar bears have quickly become the symbol for good stewardship of the Earth and can be found on cleaning products, office supplies and even the back of buses. It is greenwashing, pure and simple, unless the image is accompanied by information to substantiate the claim.

Greenwashing is defined as, “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.*” Sadly, it is alive and well in 2016.

Even as consumers have gotten more savvy, so have the claims and ad campaigns which tug at your heart strings. It's a buyer beware world even in the meetings and events industry.

How can you avoid falling prey to greenwashing?

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 for their organization’s sustainability policy. Recycling in their offices while ignoring the contents of their products is not environmentally responsible.

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 verifies green building practices. When researching ecolabels and certifications look for those using clear criteria that adopt third party verification and report regularly on their 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. Making an effort toward being more sustainable, even if you are just starting out, and telling the truth will usually be widely accepted and applauded.

Beware the polar bear as a symbol of sustainability and remember the general rule of thumb applies: Caveat emptor—buyer beware!

*Source: Oxford Dictionary.

Posted by Nancy J. Zavada, CMP

Nancy is a leader and innovator in the meeting planning and events industry, she is president of MeetGreen and co-founder of the Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC).

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @nancyjzavada
Visit MeetGreen's website:

Editors' Note: The views expressed by contributing bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Meetings Today or its parent company.

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