“Be better together for the planet and the people,” reads the Olympic sustainability guiding principle.  

Is this a slogan or merely a publicity stunt?

The 2020 Olympic slogan markets this year’s games as the most sustainable yet. As a result, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is facing harsh backlash and has been accused of “greenwashing” by researchers. These accusations leave spectators to question the true intentions behind the movement.

Greenwashing is a term used when an organization markets themselves as environmentally friendly, but in actuality does more harm than good. It has become all too common among big brands, and many are facing serious repercussions like lawsuits and strikes. After a history of environmentally unfriendly games, The IOC appears to be slapping a green label on themselves to bury the dark history behind them. 

According to The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), sheets of plywood used in construction for the games have been linked to sacred forests in Indonesia that have faced deforestation. The joint statement made by NGOs explains, “The tropical forests cleared for the Tokyo Olympics included the destruction of primary forests and habitat for critically endangered Bornean Orangutans.” This directly goes against the Sustainable Sourcing Code for Timber the IOC published. 

Researchers from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland introduced a scale of sustainability in 2021 to mark changes made throughout the years. Results showed a negative trend, with this year far less sustainable than any other year. “The stakeholders of the Olympic Games paint them as paragons of sustainability,” researchers Martin Müller and Sven Daniel Wolfe wrote in the report.  “Our analysis reveals that this is not the case.” 

The IOC released new sustainability policies, that outlined five main themes to address: climate change, resource management, biodiversity, celebrating diversity, and inclusivity. Several initiatives have been taken, including cardboard beds, recycled medals, plastic podiums, and recycling architecture.

 “The Olympic movement has been very active in trying to address that and to make the games more sustainable in various ways,” Assistant professor at CUNY John Lauermann said in an interview. “Historically it starts with the Sydney Olympics back in 2000 and then every Olympics since then has tweaked with different environmental initiatives to increase sustainability.” 

Lauermann highlighted one of these initiatives, passive design,  which is a technique used by architects to use less energy by the natural design of the building. Passive design was seen throughout this year’s games. The Olympic Stadium featured large eaves and terraces, controlling wind flow to naturally cool the building. 

He also explains the benefits of temporary architecture. “Recycling buildings is one of the greatest things they can do.”

According to an article by writer Pippa Raga, The Olympics revamped 25 buildings for the event and built 10 new temporary buildings. 

The IOC’s efforts make history, but it is left up to critics to decide whether or not they believe it is greenwashing or a push towards a sustainable future.