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Are Colleges Greenwashing? by Chelsea Jones

Posted by: | December 6, 2013 Comments Off on Are Colleges Greenwashing? by Chelsea Jones |

When I began my undergraduate education years ago, the concept of sustainability was not wide-spread or such a buzz word as it is today.  Now an increasing number of colleges and universities are publicizing themselves as “sustainable” campuses.  But given that there are numerous opinions of what defines sustainability, what do institutions really mean by these claims?  Are campuses becoming guilty of greenwashing or are they truly embracing sustainable initiatives that are reflective of the school’s values?  If the former, should there be any governmental oversight of this behavior?


Greenwashing is defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”[1]  It is typically associated with businesses who want to portray their products and/or practices as environmentally friendly, but either the “green” claims of the product are misleading or the business as a whole is incompatible with sustainable ideals.  For example, Wal-Mart announced in 2005 that it would incorporate sustainability into its corporate strategy.  The company has since stated that it is working on a goal to be supplied by 100% renewable energy and promised in 2010 to double its selection of “local” produce in stores from 4.5% to 9% within six years.  As of 2011 less than 2% of Wal-Mart’s electricity consumption in the U.S. comes from renewable energy.  It would take the company 300 years with this current pace to reach its 100% renewable energy goal.[2]  Additionally, Wal-Mart defines “local” as within the same state, meaning fruit grown around San Francisco, California could be labeled “local” in San Diego, California.  These two initiatives heavily marketed by Wal-Mart are not in reality that sustainable and are very misleading.  Before Wal-Mart announced its sustainability campaign, 38% of Americans reported having an unfavorable view of the company – a peak for Wal-Mart.  As of 2010 that number dropped by almost half to 20%.  Its revenue has increased nearly 35% from 2005 to 2010 without changing much else of its business model or practices – from $312 billion to $419 billion.[3]  That is the power of greenwashing.

Are colleges trying to benefit from greenwashing as well?  A company starts to engage in greenwashing when its practices “don’t match up to the image they would like to have.”[4]  Theoretically, colleges could behave in this way as well – in order to attract more students or to obtain higher rankings, they may try to “green” their image without making any firm commitment to doing so.  In April 2012, the Michigan State University (MSU) Board of Trustees adopted the “Energy Transition Plan (ETP),” declaring that MSU plans to have its energy needs met by 100% renewable energy and that it aims to be a leader in sustainability.  Interestingly, MSU has the nation’s largest on-campus coal-burning power plant (the T.B. Simon Power Plant) and it burns 250,000 tons of coal each year.  MSU’s power plant was named by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January 2012 as the 25th biggest polluter in Michigan.  In 2008, MSU was fined $27,000 by the EPA for high priority violations of excess sulfur dioxide emissions and nitrogen oxide emissions by the power plant.  Could MSU be trying to combat this negative environmental image by touting lofty and unlikely to be realized sustainability goals?  A group of its students think so.  They claim that MSU is engaging in greenwashing by highly publicizing the ETP with its 100% renewable energy goal when it does not set a timeline to close the power plant.  According to the ETP, the campus currently gets less than 2% of its power from renewable energy.  The ETP presents a goal to have 40% of the campus’ energy be produced by renewable energy sources by 2030.


So is MSU actively engaging in greenwashing?  While MSU’s ETP presents a schedule for increasing renewable energy use, unlike Wal-Mart, the timeline is still only tentative.  MSU is not bound by this plan and it is subject to review and revision every five years according to the ETP.  It also appears that it will take at least several decades before MSU will near its proclaimed goal of 100% of its energy be from renewable energy sources.  To be fair, MSU has to start somewhere and it is unrealistic to expect them to reach their 100% renewable energy goal within the next few years.  According to MSU’s President, Mary Sue Coleman, the University has embraced sustainability:


“With the pressing challenge of climate change, we are elevating our emphasis on sustainability at Michigan. From teaching and research, to hands-on engagement, we are going to leverage our many strengths so we can make significant contributions to solving a genuinely complicated problem.”[5]


However, the problem with greenwashing is that the perpetrator is portraying itself as something it is not.  Simply publicizing that the university is committed to sustainability and has a plan to be run by 100% renewable energy could make it appear to the average person that this goal will be attainable in the near future, when in reality it will not.  Operating under the ETP is arguably contradictory when the view out of most campus classrooms is the nation’s largest campus coal power plant.


Surprisingly, MSU received a B+ on the College Sustainability Report Card (CSRC) in 2011.[6]  The CSRC is an independent evaluator of campus and endowment sustainability activities in colleges and universities and seeks to encourage sustainable initiatives on campuses in nine categories.  Shockingly, MSU’s score in the Climate Change & Energy category was an A.  One possible explanation is that the information gathered to evaluate each school is done on a voluntary reporting basis where CSRC sends each school several surveys to complete.  The CSRC gives a brief explanation for MSU’s A rating, stating that MSU decreased its green house gas emissions by 7% and is committed to a 15% reduction by 2015.  But this seems to pale in comparison to what other schools have been doing (e.g. Carleton College has installed its second campus wind-turbine and the turbines can meet approximately 40% of the campus’ annual electricity demand).   The arbitrariness of various sustainability rankings has left many schools frustrated.  If you look for a more detailed explanation for this grade in the survey that MSU completed, the CSRC notes that MSU requested that this data be kept private – unlike most schools.  Perhaps MSU’s self-reporting is not incredibly reliable or maybe it successfully overemphasizes certain areas while downplaying negatives such as its coal power plant and thus escapes a lower score.


Is there a solution for this potential greenwashing abuse by higher-education institutions?  Supposedly independent ranking systems are providing the necessary evaluations of a school’s sustainability commitment, but they seem to be falling short.  The Federal Trade Commission has released a revised set of “Green Guides.”  Its goal is to provide marketing principles to help companies avoid making misleading environmental claims. According to §260.1, the Green Guides apply to “claims about the environmental attributes of a product, package, or service in connection with the marketing, offering for sale, or sale of such item or service to individuals.”  Schools are selling an education to students, which is a service so perhaps the Green Guides should apply to them as well.  Maybe they technically already do but no one has yet to challenge them in this area.  Apparently a school’s commitment to sustainability is important to some students as many are “flocking” to schools that incorporate sustainability into their programs in hopes of gaining an edge in the “green collar” job sector.  Given that a group of MSU’s students are angry over its alleged greenwashing, there may be other groups harboring the same feelings against their alma maters.  I personally would not be surprised to see a greenwashing complaint filed with the FTC against a university in the near future.



[1] “greenwash.” Oxford University Online Dictionary. 2012. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/greenwash (28 Oct. 2012).

[2] See The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR)’s March 2012 publication: “Wal-Mart’s Greenwash: How the company’s much-publicized sustainability campaign falls short, while its relentless growth devastates the environment.”

[3] See Wal-Mart’s 2006 and 2011 Annual Report.

[4] Jacob Vos, Note, Actions Speak Louder than Words: Greenwashing in Corporate America, 23 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 673, 673 (2009).

[5] http://sustainability.umich.edu/overview

[6] The 2011 CSRC gathered data from April 2010 – September 2010.  This is the last CSRC released by the Sustainable Endowments Institute as funding was redirected to other areas within the Institute.

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