The great greenwash

The Guardian newspaper today launched Green Wash, a new column that could make great reading in the coming months as the environmentally-friendly claims of companies are exploded left, right and centre.

Avoiding the greenwash
Avoiding the greenwash

Environmental writer Fred Pearce kicks off by taking to task the United Kingdom’s electricity providers and their “green” tariffs. Brits are being offered power from energy providers who are claiming the juice they are providing comes from renewable sources. A good deal of it does, with wind turbines pumping an increasing amount of power into the grid. But while consumers may feel comfortable in the knowledge that paying a little extra is helping the environment, Pearce claims that the green tariff system is flawed, with double-dipping on claimed renewable energy sources rife.

“Green electricity is not just for greens. Not even mainly for greens. The biggest buyers are companies. When their electricity comes with a green label, they have taken to going around calling themselves ‘carbon neutral’. Which is good PR. BT has made great play of having cut its carbon emissions by more than half by buying green electricity.

“So levy payers have been very willing to pay premium prices to buy ‘green electricity’. So keen, in fact, that they buy more green electricity than is being generated in the first place. It is hard to believe that this is possible within the law, but I am told it is. An electricity supplier that has access to, say, two gigawatt (GW) hours of renewable electricity, can sell 4GW-hours labelled as renewable…”

New Zealand power companies are getting into the green tariffs game – for instance, Contact Energy customers can go through the CarbonZero scheme, buying carbon credits to off-set their energy usage. But with 70 per cent of New Zealand power still generated by hydro, the issue isn’t so sensitive here. However, green tariffs are popping up across corporate New Zealand – from buying carbon credits to cover your air travel, to paying for the environmentally-friendly disposal of old computer gear.

It’s early days for such schemes which are almost always voluntary at this stage. But their integrity is crucial to people buying into the green tariff appraoch longterm. Which is why companies trying to greenwash their image or give customers a false sense of security about their carbon footprint need to be exposed. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on the Guardian’s new addition.