You are hereBluewash is the new greenwash

Bluewash is the new greenwash

By richard - Posted on 08 February 2010

Zoe Cormier, February 5th, Axis of Eco - The first Public Eye Award for Greenwash handed out in Davos last week was unprecedented. Not only was it the first such award handed out in the Swiss city for false environmental claims, but it was also the first ever Public Eye Award for the recipient: the United Nations.

The UN CEO Water Mandate, a public-private partnership meant to facilitate water conservation, was singled out for falsely claiming to address the global water crisis. The real aim, the Public Eye committee alleges, is not to conserve water but to “facilitate greater control over water sources by for-profit corporations.” For example Nestlé, is a signatory. One of the largest purveyors of bottled water, a product widely reviled by ecologists, it is in their best interests to obtain as large a volume of water as possible, rather than to ease its distribution in regions suffering from water scarcity.

This marks the tenth year for the Public Eye Awards, trophies meant to mirror the high-profile World Economic Forum meetings by fingering “the nastiest corporate players of the year,” such as Novartis in 2007 for blocking the distribution of cheap generic drugs to leukemia patients in India. Last week saw the first award for greenwash: attempts to increase profits masquerading as attempts to improve ecological performance, usually by co-opting the symbols of environmental groups. Classic example: British Petroleum re-branding itself as “Beyond Petroleum” with a green floral logo while decreasing investments in renewable energies and making inroads into the tar sands.

The problem runs deeper than an innocent fib: by allowing ecologically detrimental practises to continue unchecked, greenwashing undermines the credibility of organisations which genuinely improve their environmental performance. In the long run the widespread practice could fuel a backlash against green-branded products by tainting all as disingenuous.

The inception of a greenwash award this year was not surprising, as false claims of ecological credentials have risen in parallel with social awareness of climate change and other issues. But the selection of the UN CEO Water Mandate seems curious. Why criticize above others an organisation whose primary mandate is world peace and universal human rights? For many this strikes the same strange chord as the demonstrations against the UN talks on climate change in Copenhagen in December. The talks may not have been as effective as hoped, but at least the gathering acknowledged the need to address climate change. Was it deserving of the same fury as the World Trade Organisation in Seattle?

“Some of the worst corporate water barons have been blue-washing their bad practices through the CEO Mandate process – it is wonderful that the award has gone to the UN CEO Mandate and I congratulate the committee for having the courage to do this” says Maude Barlow, Senior Adviser on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly. ”There is a struggle for the soul of the UN taking place. Will it represent the peoples of the world through their governments or will it become a mouthpiece for the interests of private capital?”

The UN has changed over the past two decades, says Richard Girard of the Polaris Institute in Canada, who submitted the nomination.

“It is important to call out the increasing corporate infiltration of the UN on all levels – it has shifted from regulating corporations to partnering with them,” he says. “The problem is that the program has no third party verification. Coca Cola [a signatory of the mandate] may publish a sustainability report – but if you check the fine print the auditor only checked four out of hundreds of bottling facilities.”

Gavin Powers, Deputy Director of the United Nations Global Compact, declined requests for commentary and instead referred to the official UN response to the nomination.

The Mandate “is based on the conviction that the private sector can play a positive role,” it reads. “The Secretariat appreciates that there are differences of opinion with respect to the role of the private sector … [but a] fundamental belief in the key role businesses can and should play in advancing sustainable water management is the basis of the Mandate.”

Assisting both corporate businesses and governments is the academic Water Footprint Network, based out of the Netherlands. They aim to refine the scientific tools required to measure the precise amount of water needed to produce a consumer product, such as a glass of beer (140 litres) or a cotton t-shirt (2,700 litres). “We are non-partisan – we aim to make the data and methodology available to anyone who needs it in support of sustainable and equitable water use,” explains Derk Kuiper, executive director of the Water Footprint Network

So what does he make of the Public Eye Award?

“As an African saying goes, ‘when elephants fight, the grass suffers,’ and there is a real truth to that in Davos,” says Kuiper. “The million dollar question is if this really helps those that are in need of water, or just triggers more communications activity.”

“There is political polarisation of this issue – and as always there are two sides to the coin,” adds Professor Arjen Hoekstra, scientific director of the Water Footprint Network and originator of the concept. ”There is a lot of greenwashing, but at the same time many businesses are serious about water conservation. It’s not easy to say if the UN Mandate is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The reality is much more nuanced.”

Politics and profits aside, the question is this: Do companies that sign up to the UN CEO Water Mandate actually reduce their water footprints?

“It is simply impossible to say yes or no definitely because there is no monitoring mechanism,” says Hoekstra.