How the Green Burial Council Is Fighting Greenwashing From the Ground Up

The association is working to make the funeral industry more environmentally friendly by focusing on education, setting official standards, and prioritizing transparency in natural burials. Your organization can do the same.

Plenty of associations are concerned about greenwashing. But with PR spin and lack of transparency, it can be difficult to know what’s greenwashed and what’s just plain green. So if you want to fight it, take a cue from the playbook of an association built on an anti-greenwashing mission.

Since its inception in 2005, the Green Burial Council (GBC) has fought to bring greenwashing to light in the funeral industry. The association provides third-party oversight to ensure that natural burial options marketed as “green” are indeed environmentally friendly.

“When [founder] Joe Sehee became interested in this movement, he realized there weren’t really any standards or ways to know what truly was green,” said John Niedfeldt-Thomas, leader of GBC International’s (the 501(c)(3) arm of the organization) education and outreach efforts.

GBC went on to form its own standards. Its force has been felt in several ways, with successes such as legislation permitting eco-safe disposal methods and a rise in education about the impact of traditional burial and cremation. Consider these insights from Niedfeldt-Thomas on what associations can do to fight greenwashing—and how they can avoid doing it themselves.

Set the Standard

GBC has created a set of criteria as to what’s truly green in its industry and certifies organizations that meet those criteria. The organization arrived at these standards by consulting with experts on natural burials, looking at which methods, products, and materials lead to pollution and other land and water issues. GBC also took cues from trusted sources, such as green guides from the Federal Trade Commission.

If there are no environment-related certifications in your industry, you can start forming criteria by doing the same: consulting with experts in your field. You can also approach regulators directly and push for environmental standards to be implemented, as GBC did with the FTC. When creating criteria, try to be as holistic as possible.

“In the case of green burial, the full picture of environmentally sound practices is what counts,” GBC states in its handbook. “For instance, a casket made of organic materials may be green, but transporting it over 3,000 miles to its destination using fossil fuels and child labor to construct it is not considered green.”

Spread the Word

Another way to push green initiatives over greenwashing is to educate the public and other organizations about these standards and environmentally friendly practices. That way, an informed public can more easily spot flimsy assertions from organizations claiming that they’re green. Plus, it can help well-intentioned organizations avoid greenwashing by showing them how far they need to go to truly be environmentally friendly. Niedfeldt-Thomas said that GBC works to educate funeral directors and cemetery operators about what constitutes a green burial and the eco-conscious options available to them.

Be Transparent

When determining which organizations and products are actually green, prioritize transparency. What claims are they making? Where’s the evidence that they’ve followed through? Are they certified? If so, using what standards? It might be a red flag if an organization provides no proof that it’s keeping its promises.

“Where greenwashing is most often manifested is vague words that are used by companies to talk about their processes or products,” Niedfeldt-Thomas said.

This goes for your organization as well: In your environmental efforts, avoid greenwashing by telling the public what you’re doing, your standards, and how you’re holding yourself accountable. Be as specific as possible.

(Imagesines/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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