So hands up: who’s read about Greenpeace’s recent assault on Samsung over its commitment to renewable energy?
When I say ‘recent’, I’m referring to January 2018 ( – not February, March, October or November 2017). If the answer’s a no, this campaign is specifically connected to PyeongChang 2018’s claim to be running a Winter Games powered exclusively by renewable energy sources and zero carbon emissions.
Greenpeace has labelled Samsung a hypocrite because, as a TOP and with Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance as a Sustainability Partner of PyeongChang 2018, Samsung only sources 1% of its energy from renewable sources – with energy consumption increasing year on year. Greenpeace has been pushing the entire IT sector to improve their sustainability credentials for a number of years – on the basis that the huge leaps in technology innovation are still largely built at the expense of the environment.
Immediate reaction is possibly the ‘Oh why do Greenpeace have to spoil everything – I just want to enjoy the Games’. But that fades quickly.
Because while PyeongChang 2018 is actually doing a phenomenal job in sourcing all of its needs from wind power and aiming to reduce or offset more than 100% of GHG emissions, Samsung’s Fire and Marine Insurance business has opted to leave more of a ‘symbolic legacy’. 58 trees and 1410 shrubs precisely. They’re spread majestically over 1328m2 (that’s about a third of an acre, or just think big back garden) next to a school in Gangneung, ‘to enhance students’ environmental awareness by experiencing and exploring the benefits that nature can offer.’ I’m just luxuriating in the symbolism of it all.
In 2012 we posted a Red Thread titled LOCOG’s Sponsorship Mistake. The piece acknowledged a masterly LOCOG performance, with one (sponsorship) exception: the sale to Partners (including BP and EDF) of a Sustainability Partner sub-brand, precisely what POCOG has now done. The reasoning still holds: given the power of the Olympic brand, a Sustainability Partner sub-brand de facto carries the implicit endorsement of the OCOG and the IOC (who will have authorised this practice). Unless Organising Committees are going to create meaningful (and preferably externally validated) criteria for awarding (ie selling) this status, all this practice can possibly do is undermine the very real achievements of both OCOG and IOC.
LOCOG’s own debrief concluded that ‘The lack of definition of the Sustainability Partner designation created confusion among stakeholders, as well as the general public.’ It conceded, additionally, that this lack of definition made it ‘hard to counter’ campaign groups which ‘assumed the designation was an unjustified ‘award’ to the six companies that had simply bought the right to promote ‘greenwash’.
The IOC’s environmental intentions with Agenda 2020 are exemplary and POCOG go to the top of the IOC agenda 2020 roll call in delivering the first Winter Games to be awarded ISO 20121, for Sustainable Event Management. But the IOC really should (have) shut down this loophole.
Smartphones are a clear target: objects of some desire, production demands the extraction of minerals and precious metals, while smartphone recycling is minimal. Samsung is of course one of the largest manufacturers of smartphones worldwide. While Apple for example has committed to move to 100% renewable energy sources by 2020, Samsung can’t yet explain what it’s going to do with the 4.3m Galaxy handsets it had to recall in October 2016.
Samsung also enjoys an unchallenged existence as a brand with strong equity and stature in developed markets (thanks in part to its Olympic Partnership) but with manufacturing bases and headquarters in a country known for permissively close ties between its chaebols and its government. So in some senses, Samsung serves as a totem not just for the IT industry, but for South Korea (the 9th largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally). It’s also a representative of all businesses who generate large profits with low levels of environmental accountability.
Now Samsung Electronics is of course an entirely separate business to Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance, domestic Partner of PyeongChang: different addresses and different stock market listings. So, to be fair, there is no certainty that Samsung Electronics even knew about SFMI’s Sustainability Partnership. But for Greenpeace, of course, it’s irrelevant – because Samsung stands for one thing above all else in western markets: handsets.
It’s inevitable that the Olympic Games will increasingly be used by campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace because of the global platform they offer. And the IOC’s push for higher standards of sustainability in particular will generate increased scrutiny by NGOs in the space. The IOC must know Agenda 2020 ultimately challenges the entire Olympic Family to meet the challenge of that scrutiny – but I’m unsure how well it’s understood by NOCs and bid cities, especially in countries unused to western communications practices. And, specifically, to Greenpeace’s superbly structured campaigns. Both South Korea and Tokyo OCOGs have demonstrated an insularity and naivety about how far media and consumer interest in their event, and its governance, extends far beyond their shores.
The media bandwagon will no doubt continue to question the IOC’s ability to generate host city candidates, despite the fact that the IOC can relatively easily turn down the dials on the criteria for hosting, as we’re actually seeing very clearly now with Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles – and with ‘The New Norm’. I would suggest that the IOC faces an altogether subtler challenge.
Both the IOC and FIFA have thrown open the doors in the last ten years. First China, then the African continent, then Latin America and, in the near future the Middle East have all hosted inaugural events of one or the other – but this phase is over.
It’s unsustainable because the Olympics, in its current city-led model, requires not just significant financial underwriting but real population density to justify the creation of high capacity velodromes, swimming pools or Olympic stadia. A combination which tends to come in the world’s more mature markets.
And it’s risky because, as we’ve seen in Beijing, Tokyo and PyeongChang, the other critical ingredient which the IOC needs to secure is a sophisticated communications machine capable of engaging with international media. For all its faults, Beijing’s Organising Committee at least knew how to talk the lingua franca of journalism, politics and marketing. Tokyo and PyeongChang clearly do not; and this weakness will always reflects on the IOC.
The IOC’s former Marketing Director Michael Paine believes that people scrutinise the IOC’s actions because they care about the values the IOC seeks to uphold. I can’t disagree with his gloss, but there’s another, simpler explanation: people don’t like hypocrisy. They feel cheated, and manipulated. The IOC can’t afford to stand back and allow the OCOG to own these mistakes. They need to play a more proactive role in shaping and guiding OCOG communications.