Is Your Event Making these Green Marketing Mistakes?

It’s great to see many events hanging out their green shingle these days. But are your green event marketing claims putting your event brand, product or service at risk? The following blog post discusses how greenwashing impacts events, and how you can reduce your risk.

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What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing describes the practice of using potentially deceptive information to make a product—or in this case an event or event-related product—seem more environmentally responsible than it really is. UL cleverly describes Seven Sins of Greenwashing, which can range from being vague (what exactly is a zero-waste event?) to lacking proof (excuse me sir, are those biodegradable name badges tested to break down in my compost?).

What Are The Risks?

Greenwashing can damage to your event and event brand and erode trust and public goodwill. Negative public attitudes can cause sponsors to shy away from your event, not wanting their brand to be impacted by the collateral damage. And the damage, once done, can be difficult to repair.

What Does Greenwashing Look Like?

Let’s take a look at some common green event marketing claims:

1. “ABC Tradeshow is proud to be a carbon neutral event”
Sounds good, right? Look again and ask: What does neutral mean? And what carbon impacts are being addressed? You can quickly see this statement could benefit from added context. Consider this more specific alternative: “ABC Tradeshow has purchased Green-e-certified carbon offsets that will reduce emissions equal to venue energy use within two years.” This statement is better because it clarifies certified offsets were purchased, describes the carbon impacts measured and how long it will take for emissions to be accounted for.

2. “Our lunch boxes are compostable and will be composted if placed in green bins onsite”
This claim works, provided the planner and caterer have confirmed the boxes are accepted by their compost provider, and have followed through on the onsite composting program described. Had the phrase only stated lunch boxes were compostable it may constitute greenwashing if disposables were being discarded into landfill.

3. “Our event uses signs made of recyclable material”
This one is a bit tricky. Let’s say the signs are made of a foam-type material, and it has a #6 triangle on it. If foam is not recyclable in your event location (which is true in most situations), a take-back program would need to be arranged to ensure the signs are actually recycled. If that’s not happening, this statement could be deceptive, because although the material is technically recyclable it’s not practically recyclable at your event. However, if you use a cardboard substrate this claim may be okay, although could be strengthened by clarifying “…and will be recycled”, assuming the venue recycles cardboard (which most do).

4. “Our hotel is eco-friendly”
By now your green filter is likely limber enough to anticipate you want to know a little more about what an “eco-friendly hotel” is. “Eco-friendly”, “natural”, “green” and “organically grown” marketing claims are always stronger where they are accompanied by certifications and labels that are third-party verified. A clearer statement might be: “Our hotel is LEED® Gold certified” or “Our hotel has earned a Five Green Key eco-rating.”

How do I reduce the risk?

Given these potential faux pas for green event marketers, you may think you’re better off keeping quiet about your efforts. Don’t! Communicating your sustainability efforts can help build your brand, and earn good will. What’s important is that you treat green event messaging like all of your communications, and review it for potential risks.

1. Educate yourself
Event professionals are encountering more and more biodegradable, compostable, recycled content, fairly traded and other kinds of green lingo in the market place. What we don’t often realize is many of these terms have technical aspects. For example biodegradable is different than compostable, and fairly-traded is different than Fair Trade. Turn to organizations like the Green Meeting Industry Council and Sustainable Event Alliance to help expand your knowledge about green event management and marketing terms.

2. Management, then marketing
While this post is focused on marketing and messaging, it’s important to stress that communications must be supported by good management systems. A good first step may be creating sustainability criteria for purchases, so that you can always ensure recycled content products are used, for example. Another step might be integrating expectations into contracts, so you have recourse to ensure event discards will be recycled or composted.

3. Don’t be afraid to question
Sometimes we hesitate to ask about something because we’re afraid we’re the only one who doesn’t know what “zero waste” is. Don’t be embarrassed to ask suppliers some key questions: What does this term mean? Can you provide proof of certification or testing? Is it current and up-to-date? Can you provide data that backs up your claim? Legitimate businesses invest a lot of time and money in backing up green claims, so they will be thrilled to be asked!

4. Check your filter
You can also test your green messages by running them through the Seven Sins of Greenwashing filter. This includes asking yourself if you’re providing adequate proof, being specific enough and disclosing trade-offs. You can also refer to guidance provided by the US Federal Trade Commission about green marketing claims. The Green Guides provide many examples to exercise your greenwashing filter by showing what types of claims are valid, and which are deceptive. It can also pay to check your message with a small, friendly audience of critics who can give you feedback.

In Conclusion

Event professionals should be encouraged to be transparent and inform participants about sustainability-related accomplishments. However, it pays to check event sustainability messaging for greenwashing that can put you and your event brand at risk. What good and not-so-great examples have you seen?

About The Author
Shawna McKinley
Shawna McKinley is a sustainability specialist who believes in the power of events to make the world a better place. She helps eventprofs take practical, smart steps through zero waste and carbon conscious choices that generate social good, business value, and happy event participants. Read more on her blog, Eventcellany.
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Julius Solaris
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