Greenwashing – Is This A Gray Area?

One of the many fancy terms that people come across in Corporate Responsibility is “greenwashing.” I suggest looking at this page on the Greenwashing Index website as a great primer, if you’re new to the topic. This part of their explanation is definitely worth remembering –

It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.

The topic was forced into the limelight a couple of weeks ago here in Armenia as the “Let’s Protect Armenia From Toxic Pollution” campaign on Indiegogo was drawing to a close. The initiative by the AUA Center for Responsible Mining and OneArmenia was raising money for equipment that “will enable scientists at the American University of Armenia’s Center for Responsible Mining to survey the impacts of mining in Armenia, to inform affected citizens of these impacts and to find solutions that preserve the health and quality of communities and their environment.” It was closing in on its target of $30,000 when a gentle nudge helped it across the finish line. A significant contribution of $3000 took the campaign to $30,790 (and it eventually closed on $31,316). That contribution came from Lydian International, whose mining interests in Armenia center around the Amulsar Gold Project.  I had posted a couple of sentences about this on Facebook a few weeks ago and some comments have suggested that the initiators of the campaign should have rejected that contribution as an attempt at greenwashing. Would you agree?

Lydian contributing to Responsible Mining campaign

 

A lot has been said about the Amulsar Gold Project. Lydian International just secured the final stage of the mining rights and is set to bring the Amulsar Gold Project to life. This PanArmenian article quotes President of the Republican Association of Employers Gagik Makarian as saying that the project will damage tourist spots like Jermuk, although Armenia’s former Prime Minister had earlier assured that part of the country that the project would be scrapped if the environmental risks were considerable. Amulsar and other concerns about the mining scene in Armenia had also been highlighted by protesters at the Responsible Mining Conference in Yerevan in March 2014. Hetq.am reported that the Project was already removing an endangered plant species from its natural habitat, and published an open letter to Prince Charles, who visited the country earlier this year.

There has been a lot of concern raised over Amulsar and the Armenian mining industry in general, but the point of this blog entry is to ask (and attempt to answer) a simple question. Was the $3000 contribution made by Lydian an example of greenwashing? I hope you spend a couple of seconds thinking about this before you read my answer, because it is… No. I would not consider it a case of greenwashing, and here’s why.

Greenwashing is classically used to divert attention from environmental mismanagement and damage. For example, mining companies typically invest large amount of money in social projects, building schools, clinics and other facilities in the communities where they work. In these cases, these investments constitute greenwashing if the company does not first deal with its environmental impact and put a proper waste management system into place. Coming back to Lydian’s contribution to the Indiegogo campaign, the money raised will be used to buy laboratory equipment that will assess the environmental impact of the mining industry. So Lydian will not have succeeded in diverting attention from its environmental impact, if the AUA Center for Responsible Mining in fact discovers damage in the soil or water of the communities where it works. On the contrary, the project will focus people’s attention on environmental mismanagement.

My answer of “no” to the question of greenwashing in this case is based on a few assumptions. I assume that the AUA Center for Responsible Mining is a structure that has integrity and independence; I don’t believe that it has “sold its soul” to Lydian for $3000. I also assume that the people working at Lydian (and – full disclosure – I know a couple of them) are not stupid – so this isn’t a PR stunt that will bite them in the behind later (because it will, if they are doing major environmental damage).

It is probably also worth noting that Lydian’s press releases contain no mention of their contribution to the campaign. That’s weird if they are making an attempt at greenwashing – wouldn’t they want to use this contribution to grab attention and portray themselves in a good light?

Let me summarize my thoughts on the topic. I think that Lydian recognizes that the mining industry in Armenia has a horrible reputation – and that many of their fellow companies are indeed very irresponsible. I believe that Lydian is trying to introduce new technologies to reduce their environmental impact and that they need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the industry. An independent monitoring body like the AUA Center for Responsible Mining could provide impartial data to environmentalists and community members. All this would benefit mining and environmental awareness in Armenia.

This is why I don’t consider this to be greenwashing. I know it’s a touchy subject and I expect there to be a lot of debate by people on this topic. But I also urge anyone who is willing to comment below or talk to me on this subject to refrain from condemning the phenomenon of mining in general. Do mines in Armenia engage in bad environmental practices and attempts at greenwashing? Many do, undoubtedly.  But we can’t shut down all the mines in the world – if you’re reading this post on a computer or mobile device before you drive (or take a bus) to work/home, then you are just as dependent on the results of mining as the rest of the us.

What we need in Armenia, and the world, is responsible mining. I think this is a good step in that direction. Now… tell me what you think.

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3 Responses to Greenwashing – Is This A Gray Area?

  1. armine says:

    HI Nazareth, thanks for this post. You raise very important points. I have one question – what is “responsible mining”? Can you please provide a definition so that it is clear what precisely we are talking about. Because you say that is what Armenia and the world need, but I am not sure I understand what responsible mining means or looks like.
    thanks.

  2. Nazareth Seferian says:

    Thanks for the question, Armine. Let me use the definition provided by others’ first, then present a more simplistic vision.

    The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) is a multi-stakeholder group and uses the following wording –
    Although some degree of disturbance is inevitable even in the best-managed mines, and in some cases ‘no mining’ may be the best option, we believe that most negative social and environmental impacts are avoidable if companies operate according to the best possible standards. Elements of such responsible mining practices include mine location, environmental management, worker issues and corporate governance.

    There are more details on IRMA’s website here – http://www.responsiblemining.net/responsible-mining/

    The AUA Center for Responsible Mining talks about “the creation and adoption of global best practices in socially, environmentally, and economically responsible mining of Armenia and the region.”

    I understand that mining companies are fair targets for criticism and even outrage – we have seen many examples in Armenia of how they have mismanaged their environmental and social impact. But I see responsible mining as the proper management of the social and environmental influence of a mine – how their tailings and other waste are managed, what their planned volume is and how this will affect the community/environment, how they treat their employees, how they work with the community etc.

    I don’t subscribe to the approach that “the only way to change the situation is to close all existing mines and not open new ones” – that’s too radical for me. But I do agree that overmining in a region is a bad practice (though this is more a case for responsible governance by the state that hands out mining licenses).

  3. armine says:

    thanks for the answer Nazareth.

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