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Greening And Environment

Global campaign challenges companies who greenwash in the name of sustainability

Two Sides, a global non-profit organisation, has challenged more than 2,650 organisations found to be communicating greenwashed messages to their customers when switching to digital communication. To date, around 1,180 organisations have removed misleading anti-paper statements.

According to the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA), economic pressures remain the driver for most ‘greenwashing’. “Greenwashing means presenting products, policies, or practices as environmentally friendly when they may not be, thus misleading the consumer,” explains Jane Molony, PAMSA executive director.

Many companies are moving customers from paper-based services to digital platforms in a bid to reduce costs, for instance. Unfortunately, this switch to digital or email-based communication is often justified as ‘greener’: “Go Green – Go Paperless”, “If everyone said no to a receipt for one month, we would save 45 trees”, “Save a tree and let us email you a receipt”.

“These types of statements about saving trees are unsubstantiated, opportunistic and misleading in a number of ways,” explains Molony.

Firstly, such assertions give the impression that electronic communication is more environmentally friendly than paper-based communication. “We need to consider the full lifetime of different mediums,” says Molony.

Secondly, the environmental footprint of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector encompasses various aspects, including energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing volumes of electronic waste.

Thirdly, greenwashing perpetuates myths that forestry and paper are not environmentally sound. On the contrary, PAMSA states that wood from certified plantations is a renewable resource. “In South Africa, and around the world, sustainably managed forests or plantations are grown, harvested and replanted in rotation, and help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and storing carbon in the trees while they are growing, in the wood once harvested, and even when the wood is made into a product such as paper or furniture.

“Companies are not saving trees by using less paper or going digital. Like wheat and corn, trees are ‘farmed’ for the products they produce, and a healthy market for forest products such as paper and wood encourages the planting of more trees.”

Molony acknowledges that digital communication is here to stay. “However, we need companies to be honest about the reasons, which are largely cost-saving, convenience or accessibility.” She also notes that the demise of the South Africa postal service has certainly fast-tracked the shift to digital communications.

According the 2023 Two Sides Trend Tracker report, 57% of South African consumers believe environmental arguments from companies to switch to digital communications are misleading and are really about reducing costs. Furthermore, 86% of people surveyed want the choice and do not want to be forced into digital communications.

With increasing focus on corporate sustainability, other sectors are making similar claims. “We even see some pencil manufacturers making ‘wood-free’ pencils, claiming they are better for the planet,” notes Molony, yet these pencils are made from some plastic composites.

PAMSA estimates that unsubstantiated claims can also threaten a sector that employs some 150,000 people in South Africa, while the financial impact of greenwashing is also of global concern. Research conducted by Two Sides and Censuswide in 2021 in Europe found that greenwashing threatens the loss of €337 million of value annually to the mailing and postal sector alone .

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