The Great Green Myth: Can you really have an environmentally friendly business?

A few years ago, I got a call from a business acquaintance wanting to set up some time with me to discuss a great new “green idea”.

I winced at the thought of another meeting around this buzz word but felt that I at least owed him the courtesy of some FaceTime and was willing to hear what he had to say.

A week later, we were sitting in a boardroom and, after the cursory small talk, he launched into his proposition. “we have a way to make all your events Carbon Neutral”.

My blood pressure rose a bar or two as he continued.

What this poor soul didn’t realize was that I have been spending years trying to understand this very conundrum.

Before you read further, please understand that you will probably feel more confused and frustrated after reading this article as I offer no solutions to this issue, only explore the flawed solutions that are being thrown our way.


The Carbon Neutral Hoax

Back to the meeting, I forced a smile and asked him to explain his solution.

He explained that his company would audit our footprint on the event (fuel/mileage/ electricity) and plant trees to offset the carbon credit.


That’s it? I couldn’t contain myself and unleashed my frustration on him.

The conversation went something like this:


Me: so you are telling me you are going to measure our carbon footprint by fuel, electricity, mileage etc. how do you quantify this? If you were going to honestly assess energy spent on an event, you would need to not only include all mileage and electricity used in pitching, co-ordination, pre-production – but surely assess the consumables and additional resources used in producing the event collateral as well as their associated impact. Print, animations, deliveries, gifts, courier movements and more. But what about our supplier processes? That 1000 lanyard order and USB sticks, didn’t they come from China? How do you assess that? They were personalized which proves they were bespoke and must surely be accounted for.

Green guy: yes, but…

Me: giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you could, indeed, account for all the energy used in all associated services in event delivery, what then?

Green guy: We will plant trees?

Me: Trees?

Green guy: Yes, in the Drakensburg (around 400km from Johannesburg).

Me: So let me get this straight, you are going to offset my carbon footprint by putting a bunch of saplings on the back of a large diesel truck, trek the. For over 400 kilometers to plant them in a freshly deforested area (leveled by heavy machinery). Can I also assume that the labour needed to plant these trees will get to their place of work by petrol taxi. The saplings will then be propagated and fed by water irrigation (plastic piping which also followed its own energy intensive distribution and manufacturing path). The water supply, too, would need to be pumped to a reservoir, using even more energy for at least two years until the sapling had taken root.

Green guy: But you don’t have to count that.

Me: Yes I do. If we are going to claim to be “Carbon Neutral” then we need to look at the entire footprint and not just the evident stomping ground. Fact is our impact and creation of need extends way beyond our line of sight. Our industry impacts on ecosystems around the world, from the badge-making resin machines in South East Asia to the fabric factories in India- all commissioned to satisfy my direct need.

Green guy: (speechless)

Me: I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that you can accurately measure environmental impact holistically, nor can you truly offset my carbon footprint without creating additional environmental strain. Do you agree?

Green guy: (no comment)


Who’s got Green’s Back?

The fact is that the environment itself doesn’t have a bank account, team of lawyers or stronghold of dedicated, focused protectors. Small environmental groups and movements don’t stand a change against the majority of businesses whose primary aim is to make money. It doesn’t mean that big business doesn’t care, it’s just that they done know what to care about and how to care. We generally map our carbon footprint around what we can see and smell, rather than the impact our decisions are having on other environments, often half way across the globe.


Perceptually Green

It is often business’ compulsion to be perceived as being green To bolster public image and accent the sales and PR strategy. It is more important to be seen as doing the right thing than actually doing it. Spiritual wisdom indicates that if you are doing the right thing and have to tell people about it, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.


Whose footprint is it anyway?

So where does one company’s footprint end and the next begin. In other words, is it reasonable to expect others to clean up their own mess and be responsible? Well in a perfect world each company would ensure they were environmentally responsible. This is not a perfect world.


Fact is, environmental issues are at the bottom of most company’s agendas, especially the smaller ones. A good start would be to insist on your supplier’s environmental sustainability report and independent environmental impact audit before placing an order with them. This would move it up the agenda a few notches.



The Green Domino

Choosing to partner with truly responsible companies can not only create a powerful green domino effect but ultimately save you from fitting a much larger bill in the long run. The domino falls both ways, both forward in your own direct actions and back through your processes and supply.


The “Green” Conspiracy

There are still those who believe and would argue until they were blue (not green) that there is no conclusive proof of our effect on global warming. They argue that as we have only been measuring global temperatures for little over 100 years that we have no proof or evidence that the global warming and global cooling is a result of human intervention or purely cyclic.

They would also argue that there is evidence of pre-historic mutation, pointing to the fact that there have always been holes in our ozone layer.

The most compelling argument they would offer is that every element on earth has always been here. The only addition to our ecosystem is solar energy. The elements that make up our planet and our pollution have been here for millions of years and that our waste is merely inconvenient.


While some of these arguments have seeds of truth, the fact is that our intervention is creating a hostile environment where we continue to scar large parts of our world, making them uninhabitable and toxic. While the earth may have the ability to recover over hundreds and thousands of years, the human race does not. We only have one chance to make this work before this planet becomes too hostile to live in.


The Great Energy Debate

In Southern Africa, as in some other parts of the world, our national energy supplier actively advertises for people to stop using their product (a marketing first I’m sure). Constant commercials implore consumers to turn off their lights and geysers to avoid load shedding. They encourage the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFL or LEDs – an absurd proposition.

As an aside, the simple incandescent bulb can be made in one factory, simplifying the production process. The CFL and LED have been known to comprise components and electronics from up to four countries, creating massive carbon footprints abroad before making it to our shores.


Green: A New Approach

As I said earlier in this post, I do not have solutions to our current predicament. I don’t believe that tree planting and buying carbon credits is a solution.

The first steps must surely be to consider our activity, create a positive trend by actively consolidating need. Turn a sharp eye on logistics, take one car to a meeting instead of two, ship items in fewer loads, making better use of transport networks.


1975 Ford Mustang vs a brand new Toyota Prius

Which is worse for the environment, a 1975 Ford Mustang V8 or a new Toyota Prius Hybrid?

Most would say it was obvious that the Prius would use less fuel and therefore beat the gas guzzler hands down.

Think again. It’s all about “need”. Why create a need for a new vehicle when you can lay your hands on one that exists.

The processes involved in making a new car, never mind a hybrid (whose battery itself is made in Europe, China and Japan before assembly) is purely catastrophic to any environment. From the tannery of the seat leather to the windscreen glass furnace pumping our heat of over 720 °C beyond its annealing point, creating unnecessary need is the environment’s biggest challengers.


I’m not saying we should end manufacturing new things, but we should simplify our demand. Do we really need seven different varieties of oranges from six different countries at our local supermarket or will one suffice? Marketing dictates that variety may be the spice of life, maybe we need to spice life up in other ways.


Finally, any company that claims to be carbon neutral shows a gross disregard for not only the environment, but our intelligence. These companies have hired “Green Consultants” to certify their efforts and assist in enhancing their reputation. It’s a direct conflict of interest, as they are hired and paid by the very company that they need to assess.

We are a long way from creating an alliance of responsible companies that honestly address their environmental impact globally.

We need to start the conversation again and understand that if we can’t see it or smell it here, someone else can over there.

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