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‘I have a feeling our service is used for greenwashing’

During the launch of the Sustainability Office VU a professor said she worries that her internationally recognized work is being used for greenwashing.

The Sustainability Day on 10 October featured various activities and presentations on campus, such as sustainability-themed spoken word performances and a workshop to create zero-waste deodorant. The day ended with a keynote and the launch of the Sustainability Office VU. Although the office has already existed for some time, it didn’t have its official launch until now.

Off the cuff

During the launch event, someone from the Sustainability Office is asked to give an example of one of its best practices so far. The SDG Scan project by Dr. Edina Dóci gets highlighted and she is invited on stage. “This method trains students to go out to organizations and raise awareness about the United Nation’s SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals, Ed.] and how they relate to organizational and business practices”, explains Dóci. Her work was recognized as one of the 25 best SDG-related practices by United Nations Academic Impact. “But I want to say something else here”, Dóci says firmly and seemingly off the cuff. She says the project was appreciated by students and organizations. “But I’m not sure I would do it again. I had a feeling after a while that we are offering organizations a sort of service that they can use for greenwashing.”

Easy cop-out

She is concerned that organizations are not fundamentally changing anything, but that things already being done are being labeled as SDGs. “Which allowed these organizations to put on their website that VU students came to help them and now they are sustainable.”

She does think her method is good, but if she could do it over, she would be more critical. “I don’t think business organizations would like that, but I think the students would still learn a lot”, says Edina before she is thanked by the host and met with a slightly confused applause from the audience. To make matters more awkward, she gets a certificate of recognition immediately afterwards from the Sustainability Office’s Ivar Maas, while he does his best to explain why her project was still important.

More confusion

Another source of confusion as the Sustainability Office is launched, is that the university already has a Green Office. As the floor is opened to the audience’s questions, the first question posed is about that distinction. The answer given on stage is similar to the one the Green Office’s manager Lennard Jacobsen gives us afterwards: The Green Office focuses on students, while the Sustainability Office focuses more on employees and external partners.

Outside of the event, while speaking to a few Green Office employees informally, they note that there are some concerns within the Green Office – like how the Sustainability Office might somewhat restrict the Green Office’s freedom and flexibility to be activistic. At the same time, they are very positive about the Sustainability Office’s team. And they are glad that the Sustainability Office can have full-time long-term positions, whereas the Green Office relies on a new team of students each year.

“I see some people are worried because it’s a new situation to be in”, says Jacobsen. He thinks the uncertainty comes from being in a transitional phase and that it will all be figured out. “I can guarantee you there was no point where the Sustainability Office blocked or prevented anything. On the contrary, they were very supportive.” He notes that in meetings, the Green Office has even been told by higher-ups to be more skeptical and push VU Amsterdam harder.


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