New Sign of a Maturing Green Funeral Industry: Greenwashing

Green Burial Council urges standards to counteract greenwashing funeralsIt was bound to happen sooner or later, and in this case it’s sooner. The green burial industry has hardly begun to pick up steam and it has already fallen prey to greenwashers.

Greenwashing can be the source of much confusion and ill will in any field, and it can be especially toxic in the funeral industry, which intersects with people at one of the most vulnerable and emotional times of life. It’s little wonder that the trade group Green Burial Council has been quick to confront the issue with an appeal for better standards.

Greenwashing Funerals and Burials

Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that appeals to a consumer’s sense of environmental responsibility, but without actually delivering the goods. It can reach obvious heights of ridiculousness, as in the tobacco industry’s attempt to paint itself green a few years ago. For the funeral industry, greenwashing can mean any number of things. For example, a cemetery could claim that it is naturally landscaped, when actually it uses standard herbicides and pesticides. Or, a crematorium could claim that its process is free of environmental impacts, though it might burn fossil fuels, neglect to deal appropriately with its smokestack emissions, and fail to provide urns that are manufactured with sustainability in mind.

Cremation, Burial and the Economy

Part of the heightened concern over greenwashing may stem from the growing competitive tension between cemeteries and crematoriums. It seems that the economic downturn may be motivating more people to consider cremation out of financial concerns, rather than environmental awareness. Demographic trends may also be playing a role in the growing interest in cremation. With more seniors living in retirement communities, social ties are frayed and there is less cause for a traditional funeral, let alone a full schedule of viewings at a funeral home.

Better Standards

The Green Building Council has formally petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to include green funeral services in its updated FTC Green Guides. Ideally, the standards would include all aspects and options relating to the preparation and disposition of the body. That would include embalming (conventional embalming uses formaldehyde, a carcinogen), fuel and emissions standards for crematoriums, landscaping standards for cemeteries, and the materials used in urns, caskets, and vaults. It could also include any aspects of green design or retrofits in a funeral home.

Beyond Green Funerals

In the global picture, cultural considerations can also play a critical role in sustainable “death care” practices, and sometimes this is out of the hands of the conventional funeral home, crematorium or cemetery. The lavish, heavily accessorized death rituals of Victorian England have their modern counterparts in present day countries like Taiwan, where elaborate funeral ceremonies can stretch for weeks, attended by a swell of carbon emissions and other not-necessarily-sustainable outputs. In parts of Ghana the tradition has gotten so out of hand that extravagant funerals have been outlawed, not so much from general environmental concerns but due to excessive noise and blocking of traffic. While in direct conflict with the green burial trend, these more energy-intensive exhibitions also open an opportunity for businesses to consult and educate consumers on mitigating or offsetting their actions.

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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