Greenwashing in the funeral sector
Greenwashing PR and marketing grew up working for major operations like the oil industry, airlines, steel production, and car manufacturers. They saw the writing was on the wall for them years ago, but to stave off the enormous investment needed to transform their industries, they used PR and marketing campaigns to delay or avoid action.
- Weasel words intended to mislead.
- Deliberate imprecision, ambiguity and statements unsupported by facts.
- References to reports for which sources are not available.
- Commitments to unquantifiable targets
- Meaningless awards, certificates and badges
Now that climate change has become an emergency, misinformation and the application of greenwash are almost universal. It can be difficult to spot who is really committing to making global change as opposed to those just paying lip service or deliberately misleading us.
My name is James Leedam; I have spent the last twenty years working with landowners across the UK to set up sustainable, natural burial grounds. I am, therefore, keenly attuned to spotting Greenwash, particularly in the funeral sector.
We are living in an age of misinformation; led astray by false statements and fake news.
Marketing and PR spin are used to manipulate and deceive us into thinking that something is ecologically sound, without actually delivering. Companies know that consumer appetite for green stuff is growing and they are desperate for a slice of the action. The temptation is to make themselves appear greener than they are. Ambiguous, loose terms and buzz words are splashed around to promote goods and services.
So how does this relate to the funeral sector?
To start with, there’s the coffin. Eco-coffins are increasingly popular, but is a coffin ‘eco’ if it’s shipped from the other side of the world? After all, we know that shipping is notoriously polluting.
Is a Green Funeral still Green when relatives have flown in or travelled from far away? Again, we should be aiming for as few miles as possible.
Is a ‘biodegradable plastic’ body bag even rational if it won’t biodegrade in the conditions that exist in a grave?
And when burnt in the cremator, it turns into toxic pollution and CO2.
And are florists aware that so-called Bio versions of florist foam won’t decompose on a compost heap? It needs biologically active landfill conditions in order to break down, and even then a lingering 10% or more will refuse to go.
What’s the point of an electric hearse if the coffin bearers have to come in separate cars?
But all of this pales into insignificance compared with Carbon Offsetting – paying for others to reduce emissions or absorb CO2 to compensate for your own continued discharge.
Carbon trading sells permits to pollute in return for money. It’s astonishing that this is even legitimate. The figures, claims and measurements are wildly inaccurate, impossible to verify and wide open to abuse. It is usually done by paying a broker who will have a range of projects like wind farms, cleaner, more efficient cooking stoves for Sudan, wetland and forest preservation projects and, of course, tree planting.
Carbon markets have failed. Carbon offsets can now be bought so cheaply that there is no incentive for emitters to invest in cleaner technology. The whole market is riddled with corruption and injustice and there has been no perceptible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since it began.
This could be the biggest scam in our generation.
Typically, greenwashing is employed by energy-intensive and polluting businesses with something to hide. In the funeral sector, we immediately think of crematoria.
One new arrival on the direct-cremation scene has a website that SCREAMS greenwash!
“Eco-friendly cremations your family can trust” and “Help the planet – We plant a tree with each cremation”.
But can the impact of a cremation really be counteracted by planting a tree?
Let’s have a look…
They want you to think that planting one sapling (or as they prefer to say, tree) will offset the carbon from one cremation. But will it?
- We’re told that each cremation emits ~250 kg of carbon
- The Woodland Trust estimates that one tree in a UK woodland absorbs about 250kg of carbon over its lifetime.
So, on the face of it, that balances, right? – However, a sapling will take decades to start to absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide by which time millions more CO2 spewing cremations will have taken place
It’s a game of catch-up that the saplings will never win and we don’t have decades to spare
Also, what are the chances of this little sapling becoming a mature tree?
According to an expert report on European forestry, only 13-55% of saplings reach maturity. That figure assumes standard planting methods, correct protection and attentive aftercare, which isn’t always the case. Many carbon offset schemes operate in much harsher climates where survival rates are lower still and planting methods can include dropping seed balls from aircraft. You can begin to see how the figures don’t stack up. Read the BBC’s recent report how phantom forests are used for greenwashing.
Sadly there’s more – there is quite possibly no net gain to be made by planting trees.
Low-cost farmland is being purchased by big-business to plant trees for carbon offset schemes. But grassland is already a great carbon sink, sequestering carbon into the soil via plant roots. Using this land to plant trees will diminish the grass cover and cut the carbon capture previously achieved by grass. Where is the gain?
In the end, everything to do with carbon offsets becomes a bit of a fantasy.
Can we trust quotes from academic studies?
Another favourite tactic of the greenwashing brigade is to quote out of context from academic studies.
For example, promoters of Resomation refer to some odd results from a Dutch report:
An Independent Study in Holland by TNO demonstrated that water cremation had the lowest overall impact on the environment of all end of life options.
That simply didn’t sound right, so I decided to contact Elisabeth Keijzer, the author of the study. It turns out that her report does not include all end of life options. Low-impact, natural burial was missing.
Standard, Dutch burials fared badly because they typically include the extra impact of exhuming and reburying bones after a period of years (which is not normal in the UK). The report also assumed that only burials would include a memorial stone, which we know isn’t right. Additionally, the author pointed out that Life-cycle Cost Analysis, the method she used, favours an industrial process like Resomation. All of this is essential context that the consumer should be told.
Another report, “The carbon impacts of choices with the body after death: four scenarios”, by Small World Consulting, favours cremation, but is based on fictitious funeral scenarios, dreamt up by the client, which renders the results meaningless. Regrettably, reports like that give rise to headline claims that cremation is greener than a burial.
So what regulations are there to control misinformation?
If you suspect a company is using greenwash – check it against the CMA guidance and ASA CAP code. If it fails, then report it to Trading Standards.
We too can be a little bit complicit in this trickery; allowing ourselves to swallow the greenwash because what they’re supplying is what we might want. We can persuade ourselves that just this once won’t make a big difference. And after all, they plant a tree, don’t they?… But NO, it’s not OK.
Be vigilant, challenge what you read, ask for substantiation, go through the small print, question the report and don’t swallow the greenwash.
Let me leave you with this thought – Nature already has the answer.
You can watch me talk more about greenwashing in the funeral sector in The Good Funeral Guide‘s Go Greener Conference below…