Could universities be guilty of “greenwashing”?

It's easy to make grand claims about sustainability. Fiona Cownie worries that some of these may be getting ahead of reality.

Fiona Cownie is an Associate Professor within the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University.

Sustainable development (in particular, the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs)) is generating momentum across the sector.

As institutions spread their sustainability wings, building the commitment and capacity that the European University Association has identified as prerequisites for sustainability in higher education, it is essential that we avoid misleading claims. In short, as a sector we need to be wary of unintended or purposeful attempts at “greenwashing”.

Marketing departments across the sector increasingly understand the appeal of sustainability to prospective students and staff. But we must ensure that claims at open days and in our prospectuses are authentic. We must not mislead audiences about our sustainable values, offers and practices.

More than hot air

Our communication strategies themselves must be sustainability-conscious – balloon-festooned campuses reflecting the excitement of an open day should be questioned. Metalised balloons may create a sense of fun and occasion, but their production and disposal is problematic. Investments into merchandising – such as pens – so popular with prospective students at exhibitions and open days must be handled carefully and thought through otherwise they will undermine universities’ green trust.

Greenwashing derives from a lack of transparency; are universities investing in fossil fuels but conveniently remaining silent about it in their communications about sustainability? To avoid greenwashing we must reflect on what we communicate, what we choose not to communicate, and the methods we use to convey our messages to current and prospective students. Does the snappy headline and strapline, intentionally or unintentionally mislead our audiences about our sustainability credentials or activities? Authenticity is key, is what we communicate genuine – the full story – embracing our weaknesses alongside our strengths and highlighting what’s still to do?

Grounded

Transparent communication and the avoidance of misleading claims must be underpinned by our understanding as academics and custodians of the central currency of sustainable development. Critically, we must not be opportunistic. We must avoid making claims about our provision which suggest that experiences for some students are characteristic of experiences for all students; and we need to guard against exaggerating the extent to which our curriculum genuinely and extensively speaks to the sustainable development agenda or specific SDGs.

A tendency to use the title of the goals as a heuristic can lead to unintentional misrepresentation. To what extent are we really meeting SDGs 4 and 12 on Quality Education and Responsible Consumption and Production? The only way to do this is if we properly familiarize ourselves with the goals, their nature and purpose, the underpinning indicators, targets and activities. In doing so, we can avoid unintentional and lazy greenwashing. By being transparent and precise, we can inform how students should expect the goals to be considered by trusted organisations. This in turn can help build “green trust” in the university sector. Once in the workplace, on internships and within graduate positions, our rejection of lazy greenwashing will influence our students’ practices.

A question of intent

The avoidance of greenwashing is therefore about intent, effort and education. It is essential that across our institutions we take time to understand the sustainable development agenda in its full detail and how this should inform our teaching, research and practice. We can develop tools which seek to measure our coverage of SDGs by unit/module/course but also, provide inspiration to academics to embrace new areas of knowledge and practice which speak to the sustainability agenda. This should give us a rigorous evidence-based approach to transparently track our coverage of sustainable development. Above all, it is essential to take time to reflect why sustainability is so important to all our futures and so deserves to be the focus of our work with students.

Universities need to press forward with speed as they engage in the sustainability agenda. This will afford us all a better chance to influence society through the values and practices of our alumni. In doing so, we must ensure that our communication with current and prospective students is properly informed and transparent, avoiding the trap of greenwashing.

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