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Is the Port of Olympia engaged in greenwashing?

[BY S. SALMI]

The port is making a big deal about receiving the 2017 Green Business of the Year Award. Should environmentalists view this award as a sign that the port is moving in the right direction? Or might this be yet another example of greenwashing, which has been defined as “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact?”

That definition comes from greenwashingindex.com, which goes on to offer a classic example of greenwashing: “an energy company that runs an advertising campaign touting a ‘green’ technology they’re working on — but that ‘green’ technology represents only a sliver of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business, or may be marketed on the heels of an oil spill or plant explosion.”

So how legitimate is this local award? Back in 2007 the City of Olympia came up with the idea of recognizing green business practices. According to council minutes, the city approved a contract with the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce to develop, market and implement the program. Then-city councilmember Karen Messmer was appointed as its liaison. The program was initiated with a one-time allocation of $15,000, according to the Business Examiner.

The goal of the program has been to recognize small, medium and large private businesses — and public agencies — located in Thurston County for their sustainability practices. Businesses apply for a Green Business designation by filling out an online application indicating what they are doing in the following areas:

  • Green building
  • Waste reduction/recycling
  • Water conservation
  • Energy efficiency
  • Transportation/commute trip reduction pollution prevention
  • Buying/selling green

Applicants that are determined to be green businesses receive a window sticker for their storefront and are able to use the Thurston Green Business logo on all their promotional materials. In addition, annual awards are given to a select number of businesses based on a point system. Recipients have included Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters, Intercity Transit and Premiere Salon & Spa.

Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters display their Thurston Green Business window sticker along with a number of others.

A recent chamber press release gives a flavor for how they approach the awards: “Now in its tenth year, the Thurston Green Business program has become one of the Chamber’s most popular programs, and for good reason — businesses that take steps to be green save money while protecting and preserving resources. Saving energy and water, while reducing waste, are good steps that benefit our environment. The savings that result from conservation boost the bottom-line.”

This year the port was given an award because of recent environmental initiatives, which include installing low-flow toilets at Swantown Marina and implementing recycling in all of its offices, according to The Olympian.

You’d never know it from reading The Olympian, but another 2017 award winner was the web-based advertiser ThurstonTalk. A press release from its parent company, NorthAmericaTalk, explains the rationale for the award: “‘Every day, our team is focused on delivering a product for mobile users. Our carbon footprint is drastically lower than our print competitors,’ says Dan Jones, CEO of NorthAmericaTalk and ThurstonTalk co-founder.”

It would be interesting to see the point system for the awards, because low-flow toilets and recycling in all of one’s offices do not sound very cutting edge to me. By the same t0ken, you can reasonably argue that an entirely web-based publication saves paper, but in the case of ThurstonTalk so what? It’s not like they were a print-based media outlet that made the switch to electronic — which can be difficult. By that logic, Green Pages is more deserving of the award.

So, yes, the distinct aroma of greenwashing wafts around these awards. That said, the overall Green Business program appears to have some merit. Their website offers helpful information presented in a way that may be better heard by mainstream organizations than from a typical green advocate.

An Envirotalk commentator offered a useful way to view the award: “(N)ow that the port is holding this award up to the community, they need to live up to it — and at least in the toxics area — they have some work to do.”


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