Quick Take: The Olympics draw to a close, but greenwashing is here to stay.

Alex Price & Connor Morris 

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have just wrapped up and have been hailed as a major step forward for sustainable, climate-friendly Olympics but do they warrant this praise? Can we really consider the Olympics as a model for sustainability success?

As the Olympic organisers laid out in the 2020 Sustainability plan, the Olympics should showcase solution models of global sustainability challenges to people in Japan and around the world.

Alongside the viral innovations such as cardboard beds for athletes, the Tokyo games also featured medals made from 78,985 tons of recycled electronics (predominantly phones), and an Olympic stadium built using 40,000 pieces of donated timber. Autonomous electric vehicles made by Toyota have shuttled athletes to and from events, and plastic has been recycled into such products as the Olympic podiums and some sports uniforms.

Green energy, particularly biomass and solar, played a significant part in the Tokyo Olympics aims for carbon neutrality. Additionally, hydrogen was used to supply hot water and electricity to the Olympic village. Like Olympic villages in recent times, Tokyo’s will be turned into flats, a school and other facilities for the residents of Tokyo, rather than be demolished or left unused.

Figure 1. Volume of Mobile Telephones imported to Japan

However, is this another case of greenwashing? Greenwashing is the issue of headline-grabbing sustainability policies and initiatives that perhaps do not tell the whole story. It’s a phenomenon that is becoming prevalent as consumers become more aware of sustainability issues.  In Tokyo for example, the previously mentioned timber used in many new facilities, including the main Japan National Stadium (used for opening & closing ceremonies along with events) has been sourced from companies[1] that can be traced back to illegal rainforest logging, effectively negating the carbon-neutral argument that made the wood designs so attractive.

Perhaps not the model of global sustainability the organisers had hoped to showcase. Greenwashing is likely to continue to rear its head, not just in events like the Olympics but across the board from the private sector to policy-making and everything in between. It’s a topic that we have previously demonstrated is a complex a pervasive one.

Part of the solution is to have more transparency across the supply chain, to see where products and their bill of materials are being sourced from. Without it, greenwashing will continue to be commonplace and the degree of sustainability we think we are achieving will in fact be underwhelming and not enough to address climate change, something that is of paramount importance to achieve as the IPCC’s recent report demonstrated.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/29/tokyo-olympics-venues-built-with-wood-from-threatened-rainforests


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