Every time we turn on the television, read a paper, or listen to the radio we are confronted with talk of climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and the like. We have become so used to all this talk that it barely registers anymore, much in the same way that the words “green”, “eco” and “sustainable” pepper just about everything we see, hear, consume and become engaged with.

While a lot of organisations using these words on their products and promotions are genuine, there are a number that are not, which leads nicely into this brief tome regarding Greenwashing.

“Greenwash” refers to the relatively new trend of businesses (and government bodies) promoting themselves and their products as ‘eco-friendly’ ‘green’ ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ when this really isn’t the case. Facing an ever more discerning and environmentally aware public, greenwashing has turned into a billion dollar public relations machine.

Now, before you get worried, let me assure you that Sustainable Gardening Australia has never been accused of greenwashing! In fact we are recognised by a number of anti-greenwash and environmental organizations as the real deal… which is great for us, and for you!

I mean, we know not to believe everything we read, hear and are told, right? So, how do we, as the average person in the street, ascertain when an organisation is ridgey didge, or dodgy brothers? I reckon there is a few key points that concerned citizens, longing to be informed, can ask of an organisation in order to “gauge their greenness”. So lets have a look at these, using our SGA Certified Sustainable Garden Centres as an example of a genuine product.

Certified What?

So often, I see products claiming to be “certified”, such as “certified organic”, “environmentally certified” and the like. Ask yourself, who are these products or organisations certified by, and can you trust the certification claim? You see, the most trusted certification bodies are those that operate independently of key industry bodies, which are those organisations that stand to make (or lose) money from certification claims. For instance, the Biological Farmers Federation of Australia has a separate and entirely independent certification arm, Australian Certified Organic (ACO). This ensures defensibility, transparency and, above all, makes sure that you, the end consumer, gets a genuinely certified product, and not one whose certification credentials may be a little hazy.

Sustainable Gardening Australia is one such independent organisation, working directly with garden centres (and now landscapers) to develop, audit and enforce a set of environmental and sustainability standards that businesses can elect to undertake, if they genuinely want to make a difference. The SGA certification program participating businesses undertake is not aligned with peak industry bodies, and garden centres are not required, by law, legislation or peak industry bodies, to undertake the certification process. They do it because they care about the environment, and want to go that one step further with regards to the environment, and good on them, because it isn’t easy!

All SGA Certified Garden Centre staff have completed an intensive environmental training program and participate in regular and ongoing learning. Garden centres must complete the requirements of our certification manual that identifies both physical and behavioural changes to be made throughout the nursery. For instance, all SGA Sustainable Garden Centres have removed potentially invasive plants to the local area from sale, are engaged in on-going water and electricity monitoring activities, promote locally native plants, and are engaged in the reduction of waste and the re-use of materials. SGA Sustainable Garden Centres are engaged in a number of on-going procedures that ensure they remain at the forefront of sustainable and environmentally appropriate business practices.

SGA Sustainable Garden Centres also need to demonstrate how they are linking with and supporting their local community. Examples have ranged from fund-raisers for local wildlife carers to education trailers for local schools.

You know, certification isn’t easy, and nurseries really have to work for it. And you know what else? Not everybody passes which isn’t always the case with certification schemes.

And while we’re on that, I suggest asking businesses how they came to be certified? Were they audited? If so, was the auditor acting as an independent entity, or by someone working for the certification mob?

All SGA Sustainable Garden Centres were audited by an independent external auditor, which means we have nothing to do with the “decision” process on the day, and it is up to the trained assessor to make the ultimate call on wether or not a business has met the criteria. This is the most credible type of auditing procedure, and assures our customers and participating business that this is the real deal.

SGA Sustainable Garden Centre certification doesn’t automatically happen. Many nurseries have been unsuccessful at the first audit, and have had to make additional changes in order to be successful. Certification doesn’t last forever, and our nurseries are re-audited bi-annually. This adds a significant layer of credibility to what we, and in turn, what our nurseries do. It also means you can shop in a business that has made a genuine and on-going commitment to the health of our planet!

The sad but true reality is this: most people want to make a buck, and have realised that there is a huge swing towards “green” products, businesses and services! So by developing half-baked environmental certification processes, and “self-awarding” themselves green credentials, they sit back and wait for the green dollars to roll in! And don’t scoff, because it is happening right under your noses, all the time, in just about every facet of business. So, how do we know what’s real? One strong indicator is the not-for-profit status of an organisation.

Sustainable Gardening Australia is a not for profit, non-government organisation. This means that we are not in it for the money, we do it because we genuinely want to make a positive environmental impact. Now, I’m not suggesting all not for profit organisations are the bee’s knees, but I reckon it’s a pretty good indication that it’s the real deal! Most of Australia’s genuine green organisations are not for profit, non-government groups, who, just like SGA, do it because they love it, not to become millionaires!

Oh, and you know what else to look out for? Beware of organic claims! There are some seriously unscrupulous people about the place, and, I must say, I’ve been caught with this before. Organic applies to anything; I mean absolutely anything that was once living! So, for example, the “organic” carrot you purchase could have been treated with DDT, and can still, legally, be sold as an “organic” carrot! I have seen this happen so often, with the clever placement of the word organic on a variety of products that, if you knew what the inputs were, would never even come close to being what I define as organic.

Pic 1: The Greenwash Guerrillas at the Business Design Centre, London. 16 July 2008.
Pic 2: Beware the Greenwash
Pic 3: Carbon Offsets…..SGA style! (just kidding). Cartoon by Nitrozac & Snaggy – joyoftech.com