London 2012

London 2012 Watch: Greenwashing Activists Go for the Gold

Posted by Sheila Shayon on May 2, 2012 09:53 AM

The Olympic Games is one of the biggest platforms for branding, with its international spotlight shining on more than four billion TV viewers in some 200 countries and territories worldwide. 

Sustainability has been front and center for the London 2012 Olympics, as the London Olympics organizing committee (LOCOG) bid was based (and awarded) on the promise on making the 2012 Summer Games the "greenest ever," starting with the initial bid through the building of the low-carbon Olympic Park. Of course, with any lofty (particularly environmental) goal comes great scrutiny — and peril if perceived to be falling short.

The just-released pre-Games Sustainability Report provided a status update on LOCOG's Olympian Sustainability goals. For example, as Bloomberg notes, the report estimated that the Olympic Park "will get about 11 percent of its energy from renewable sources including solar panels, biomass boilers and small wind turbines. ... The original 20 percent target was stymied in 2010 when organizers canceled plans for a 2-megawatt wind turbine at the site."

The United Nations environmental head, UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, praised the London 2012 organizers' efforts following a tour pegged to the report's release, commenting: "I witnessed the thoughtful approach to bringing sustainability issues into the planning and development of a mass scale event. Efforts such as the greening of the supply chain, regeneration of an inner city area and bringing energy efficiency measures to local homes, can build the confidence to wider society that sustainability is not theory but infinitely do-able with the policies and technologies available today not tomorrow."

Steiner's remarks didn't do much to lessen the continuing uproar over the London 2012 sponsors, with the 53 official sponsors contributing a whopping $2.2 billion to the London 2012 organizers. Commercial partnerships comprise more than 40% of Olympic revenues as well as services and products in return for levels of marketing rights by region, category exclusivity and use of Olympic images and marks.

“The Olympics have long been on a collision course between sustainability and hyper-commercialism. In a way, it's green versus green, the green ideas of environmentalism versus the greenbacks of corporate capitalism. Right now, Olympics bigwigs are leaning toward greenbacks, placing us on a path toward greenwashing rather than real-deal sustainability,” states a Guardian writer.

Virtually all the sponsors are embedding sustainability into their London 2012 campaigns, including McDonald's — constructing the world’s largest restaurant ever inside the Olympic Park, designed to serve 20,000 at a time — and BMW, which is sponsoring the vehicles that will transport officials and VIPs at the Games. Other London 2012 sponsors include Coca-Cola, which produced the video above, GE, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, and Visa.

But it's a trio of sponsors — BP, Dow Chemical and Rio Tinto — in particular that are raising environmentalists' hackles. Kevin Smith, member of activist group Platform, commented, “The list of Olympic Sponsors reads like such a rogues gallery of some of the most controversial corporate entities that it makes you wonder if they included ‘how many deaths has this company been responsible for’ as one of the selection criteria.'”

A group calling itself Campaign for a Sustainable Olympics orchestrated a mock web hoax claiming that BP had been removed as an Olympics sponsor:

Another group of British environmental activists including the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the UK Tar Sands Network launched Greenwash Gold 2012, accusing the Olympic committee of greenwashing in accepting such ‘eco-villains’ as sponsors and posted this question posted on their homepage:

“Which dodgy company most deserves the Greenwash Gold medal in 2012? Who is covering up the most environmental destruction and devastating the most communities while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic games?”

The site gives each company's environmental record and asks visitors to vote on which one "gets the dishonour" of winning the Greenwash Gold for "covering up the most environmental destruction” to be awarded in July at the start of the Olympics.

BP, one of London 2012’s "Sustainability Partners," is nominated ramping up drilling in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster: 

Dow’s inclusion links back to the 1984 Bhopal, India disaster, when a gas leak killed 4,000 people and left contaminants that are still disfiguring people today: 

Rio Tinto, providing raw material from Utah and Mongolia for the 4,700 gold, silver and bronze medals, has been accused of air pollution and public health damage for depleting water in an arid regions and releasing toxic chemicals, and faces accusations of human rights abuse at mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea:

Olympics commercialism dates back to the 1976 Montreal Olympics when then-Mayor Jean Drapeau justified huge public expenditures declaring "the Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby." But the Games proved an economic disaster, the Olympic Stadium was dubbed the "Big Owe," and public debt took 30 years to pay off. 

The Olympics nearly went bankrupt in the 1980s due to waning interest from sponsors and governments were forced to step up to finance most of the costs. Never to be caught out again, corporate sponsorships for 10-year exclusive deals costing $100m were instituted to cover operating costs that sports scholar Alan Tomlinson infamously dubbed "the Disneyfication of the Olympics.”

It’s an increasingly delicate balance between environmentalism and corporate commercialism as both factors draw more attention and ire. Referring to BP, Dow and Rio Tinto, the Guardian notes,

“These firms – and others – besmirch London's green cred. But Olympics organisers still have time to make amends. Indigenous Environmental Network organiser Clayton Thomas-Muller, member of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation, reasoned that the IOC confiscates medals from athletes who are caught doping, so surely it could terminate these sponsorships should it wish to do so. If the IOC and Locog want their sponsorship programmes to have an ethical spine, they need to demonstrate some ethics of their own and show egregious greenwashers the door. It's not too late.”

The likelihood of organizers parting ways with any sponsors at this juncture are about the same odds that this writer will find herself on the podium accepting a medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. As for after the Games? One proposal for the Olympic Park area is to "build up to 8,000 new homes in the Park which are planned to be built to zero carbon standards and promote zero waste to landfill." No doubt activists will find something to fault with that plan, too.

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