A little green lie

Think companies are up front with you when they claim to be environmentally friendly? Think again.

oasis hotel 88 248 (photo credit: )
oasis hotel 88 248
(photo credit: )
In early July, Lahav Group announced it was building Israel's largest mall, in Beersheba. According to project manager Avi Shait, the retail powerhouse located on the former site of the Naot Midbar Hotel will incorporate green features such as solar panels, rainwater collection, and recycling airconditioning water, which will be used in three artificial waterfalls at the mall's entrance. At the same time, the mall - Beersheba's eighth - is slated to include 1,700 parking spaces, and will serve as a regional as well as local commercial center. According to Shait, this is Israel's first green mall. But can a covered, air-conditioned, 40,000-square-meter shopping center rightly claim the title? According to Aviad Oren, spokesman for the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, the answer is no, and there is even a name for making such a claim: greenwashing. "It's a wrapping that appears to be green, but there isn't a lot behind it," he said. "There is no need to build another mall in Beersheba. We oppose it…. There are enough malls in Beersheba." He added that Beersheba needs more public open space, like parks, much more than it needs another mall. According to Oren, growing trendiness of environmental issues has made many companies genuinely interested in cleaning up. However, many businesses are piggybacking on real green progress to camouflage their darker deeds. Greens and the business community are engaged in a values war over what's good for the environment, and the result is a set of "green" claims that is challenging for the average well-intentioned consumer to navigate. On an early August evening, a smattering of people traverse the endless brick sidewalk at the edge of the mall construction site, which is sprawled along Beersheba's Rehov Tuviyahu, surrounded by a white metal fence and bedraggled clumps of plastic bags. The landscape is unrewarding - offering construction to the south and bland, identical four-story beige housing blocs to the north. Although Shait said that 70,000 Beersheba residents live within a kilometer and a half of the mall, it would difficult to imagine them walking along a street with little other excitement to offer. "Its clear to me that there are people who would want to leave Beersheba a desert, with camels walking around," Shait said. "But we think Beersheba residents deserve to enjoy a commercial center that also functions as a site for community activities, together with environmental development that deals with climate, water and public parks." Oren sees the Beersheba mall as part of a trend including the Igra Group, which plans to build a 400-room hotel complex in the Sasgon Valley of Timna Park, a minimally developed area about half an hour north of Eilat. Igra Spokesman Rami Sade tells The Jerusalem Post that the company plans to reduce its ecological footprint by constructing two-story buildings painted in desert colors, that won't require poured foundations or deep digging. "The place is supposed to look like an ancient Nabatean city," Sade says. "There will be swimming pools, of course, and we are planning on putting up an advanced effluent treatment center," he adds. "In the whole village area there will be only electric cars, and an important part of the activities in the village will be dedicated to nature tours and activities." Oren says there is no way around the bottom line: "The developer says the hotel will be ecological, saving water, energy, all sorts of environmental ideas. This is greenwash. This hotel, however green it is, is destroying open space." Sade responds that the Eilot Regional Council zoned the park for tourism 20 years ago, and that when Igra began planning the hotel a year and a half ago, the plans were greeted enthusiastically. The project is currently stalled due to the Beersheba District Court ordering an environmental impact survey, which is currently being conducted. PART OF the reason greenwashing exists is because of ambiguity over what is considered to be green. Is being green recycling? Solar power? Biodegradable materials? Cotton? All-natural? Arik Elad, spokesman for the consumer information agency Emun Hatzibur (Public Trust), says he addresses this confusion. "Our problem is that there is an issue of brainwash on the topic of greenwash," he said. "There is a situation of laundering words in that everything can be connected to organic, environmentally friendly, natural or not tested on animals. It's vulnerable to manipulations." Because of this confusion, Elad said, he does not receive many complaints about misleading claims. "Once there is a legal definition and standards for what green is, then people will be more aware of the issue and what to complain about," he said. Nitzan Ayal is working on this issue at the Israeli Standards Institute (ISI). Ayal began a "Tav Yarok" (Green Seal) program 13 years ago that would give a stamp of approval to products that meet rigorous technical demands and stand up to on-site annual inspections. Today, about 100 products have earned the mark, including a power generator from the Yavne-based Ormat, a producer of turbines and geothermal energy. Ayal estimates next year the total will double. Although he declined to name specific firms, he says he has to turn away would-be greenwashers.   "One company asked for the Tav Yarok for wooden shelves because the shelves were totally biodegradable," Ayal said. "But it wasn't totally green because they didn't say where the wood came from; the glue was not green; there was no recycling process. But they said 'It's wood, it's green.'" For now, Ayal's program is limited to products. The ISI has building standards for homes and offices, but there is still no Israeli code for green retail buildings. Between the ISI seal, which could be considered 100 percent green, and the Timna Park, which could be called greenwash, there are factories that are trying to improve their environmental credentials. The Haifa Bay Refinery (Bazan) is one of those. In 2005, Bazan earned the disreputable "Black Globe" award from Life and the Environment, an umbrella group for the Israeli green movement, for being the biggest polluter in the Haifa Bay area. As late as last March, Bazan received a stern letter from the Environmental Protection Ministry, accusing it of not keeping to a timetable for reducing emissions and volatile organic compounds. The company has described this negative press as a "lynch," considering its progress in leak prevention. But the Coalition of Public Health, which monitors industry at Haifa Bay, claims that the criticism was well-deserved, and that Bazan's moves to clean up are far too late. Coalition Director Amit Rabin was featured in the Shakshuka Method, a 2008 documentary by journalist Micky Rosenthal that investigated the Ofer brothers, Sammy and Yuli, two well-known captains of Israeli industry and the owners of Bazan. On camera, Rabin points to home after home of cancer patients in the Haifa Bay area, who - he says - got sick by breathing in noxious fumes and emissions from Bazan and the other factories operating in the bay area. "We don't want to go back to living in caves," Rabin tells Metro. "But when we see that the Ofer brothers have a factory here, and another in the Netherlands, and the one in the Netherlands is clean and ours isn't, we ask: Where is the regulation?" Talia Rothschild, Vice President of Environmental Affairs at Bazan, says these accusations ignore the serious work Bazan has done to improve its ecological impact. In 2007, Bazan pledged $270 million to rehabilitate its environmental record, to be spent over five years. Included in that package is a $13m. filter for fine particulate matter, which gets lodged in lungs, and another $13m. system to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide. "We are also completing a comprehensive program of leak detection and repair," Rothschild said. "This is according to a very tight deadline of six months for a full round. This is very short for a repair of 150 components. We have until December." When asked about claims that Bazan is engaging in greenwash, Rothschild tells Metro, "I think the facts speak for themselves. Everyone who wants to see can go to the field and see the data. These are qualitative things that you can measure, black and white, and you can't call it greenwash." Shlomo Katz, the Haifa District Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Ministry, also says that Bazan is improving. "I think there is a meaningful difference between the last two years, but there is still a lot to do," Katz said. "There is an improvement, especially in [leak detection], in the pipe connections, in sludge, containers and chimneys." Katz says his ministry launched an environmental rehabilitation program last year targeted at Bazan and 14 other factories in the Haifa Bay, including Carmel Olifinim, Haifa Chemicals, and the Paz, Delek and Sonol fuel companies. Katz said the program will bring local factories up to the European Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) standard, which went into effect in 1996 to regulate industrial polluters. He plans to eventually expand the program to all heavy industry in Israel, including power plants, mining and metal forging. "In Europe it took 13 years to put IPPC into place," Katz says. "We plan to straighten out in the next five years." The next step, he said, is to seal the fuel containers more tightly with double roofs. However, he also said that the greenest thing that could happen in Haifa Bay would be using natural gas, which the National Infrastructures Ministry promised to bring to the area in 2005. Katz added that he senses an air of cooperation between the Haifa area factories and his ministry. "Once there was only everyone doing their own thing and complaining about each other," he says "Today, there is more conversation." In response, the founder of the Coalition for Public Health, Jimmy Krikun, says that the changes now being made at Bazan are light years behind those made in refineries around the world. "For every ton of oil they refine, they put out 12 times the amount of volatile organic compounds as [similar] California-based companies," Krikun says. Katz replies, "There is no doubt that we have to close the gap with the world, and that's the plan." Historically, the biggest perpetrator of greenwashing may be the Egged bus company, which Life and the Environment, the IUED, and Katz all fingered. In 2000, Egged painted its fleet green and announced it would use environmentally-friendly fuel. That year, a Ha'aretz reporter found that only 600 of the company's 4,000 vehicles had actually made the switch. "Do you know how much it costs the environment to use chemicals to take off the old red paint, and to put on green paint?" asked Katz. "This is greenwash." Oren added that last year Egged fought to avoid complying with the Euro 5 standard, which reduces air pollution. He said the IUED submitted a complaint to the Consumer Protection Agency, and since then the bus company has stopped its ad campaign. Egged spokeswoman Shimrit Sela wrote in an e-mail to The Jerusalem Post that the bus company has purchased 79 intercity buses that met Euro 5, and has begun testing two prototypes of Euro 5 city buses, with plans to roll out 40 in Israeli cities next year. There are 3,000 buses in the Egged fleet. Sela adds that Egged is preempting Israeli legislation, which will make Euro 5 mandatory only in 2010. In a phone conversation, she said: "Egged is investing a great deal in environmental [issues], but even so, green groups choose in certain incidents to direct complaints toward Egged, sometimes from lack of understanding that processes and activities in the environmental realm, especially in a large company like Egged, need to be carefully planned and therefore get executed gradually." Daniel Orenstein, an ecologist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, says there is a problem of universal standards in Israel. He called on Life and the Environment to lay down criteria. "The Standards Institution of Israel enforces ISO standards [for building]," he says. "In the same way, there should be green standards for business. I think today there are standards, but it's just too dispersed, which is why you need a group like Life and the Environment." Orenstein has also had experience with greenwash. In 2007, he published a scathing condemnation of the "green" community of Haruv, to be established in the western Negev. Haruv was planned with solar energy and compost disposal for each home, but Orenstein wrote: "Their development wastes land resources by consuming more open land per capita than any other urban form. Further, they are effectively privatizing this land for their own personal enjoyment, denying access to the rest of the population." For Oren, of the IUED, the deeper problem with greenwash is the erosion of public support for environmentalism "If you buy a product and later on discover that the company lied to you, you will give up and stop buying green," he says. And the debate boils down to balance. "You can't reduce your environmental impact to zero, and we know it," he added. "But it is a matter of balance - how much do you influence, and how much do you destroy?"