Green Week: A College greenwashing initiative?

Was this year’s “Green Week” really an effort to systematically make Trinity “greener” or was it simply a College greenwashing initiative?

On the week of March 11, a number of interesting-looking sculptures made from recycled materials could be found on campus from Front Square to the Watts Building. The sight of a  model hanging bee outside of the GMB, the bog oak sculpture in the Watts building, and the interactive art piece on the rugby pitch would have left the average passerby somewhat baffled. They were, however, part of Trinity’s annual “Green Week”. 

Part of the Green Campus Committee (GCC) set up by the late Professor Simon Perry in 1992 to promote environmentally friendly initiatives and climate education on campus, the first Green Week was held in 2003. This year, however, some students felt it missed the mark. The few sculptures scattered around campus, a second-hand clothes swap in the Arts Block, and a rather small metal Green Week sign, leaning against the Campanile, left some feeling as though it was merely an attempt at greenwashing by the College administration. 

By the week’s end, the metal sign had been vandalised, and many were calling on College to focus on tackling systemic changes, including divestment from major plastic producer, Coca Cola. So, what did it take to plan Green Week and could there have been more done to quell student frustrations?

David Hackett, College’s Environmental Services Coordinator, is the current vice-treasurer of the GCC and has been involved on the Committee since its inception. In an interview with Trinity News, he admitted that this year’s Green Week, and indeed all those since  Covid-19, haven’t been as impactful as they could be: “The launch used to be on Front Square on the exam hall steps and there used to be someone notable launching [so that] even people walking through Front Square at lunchtime, whether they liked it or not, heard Senator Norris or Mary Robinson, or whoever the guest speaker was, talking about it. The societies are not all involved yet again to coordinate stuff … we’ve even got out of the habit of having either the Sunday at the start of Green Week or the Sunday at the end of it, the Chaplaincy involved so that they centred their Sunday services and homelies … around a theme of environment … everyone’s gotten out of the habit of automatically knowing where things are and automatically doing them.”

Since the pandemic, the College has opened an official Sustainability Office with paid employees dedicated to planning educational events year-round. Part of their job is to help the GCC realise its goals for Green Week. When Jane Hackett, the Office’s sustainability manager and GCC co-chair was asked about accusations of greenwashing, she said: “I actually get kind of slightly upset about that…We’re not doing it to greenwash, we’re genuinely trying to get students engaged in the topic.” She added that in order for Green Week to be a success, students also need to be doing their part: “What I find is you run loads of events and the student population doesn’t turn up… For instance, I ran an event with a panel discussion trying to inform the student population about Trinity’s observer status at the recent Conference of the parties (COP). We had a big lecture theatre there and only about 35 people or so turned up. So it’s really hard without having communications with every student member of the College to see what would get them interested in the topic.” 

many students involved with GCC believe that levels of student engagement would be higher if the Committee itself wasn’t run entirely by overworked volunteers.”

Despite this, many students involved with GCC believe that levels of student engagement would be higher if the Committee itself wasn’t run entirely by overworked volunteers. Current GCC Secretary, Nicole Hennessy explained that the Committee “just meets monthly and every month is just kind of like a recap of … what’s happened in the past month. But at the end of the meeting, there’s very rarely proper actions for anyone to take up. Someone might have brought up a great idea, but no one’s actually going to take that idea and turn it into a reality because everyone is just kind of like, ‘well, I’m too busy for that.’” 

Furthermore, while the Committee is part of the national Green Campus programme run by the state’s national trust, An Taisce, it receives no funding from the state or College. This means it must either seek out sponsorship or raise money from its own events. This limits the Committee’s capacity to turn its ideas into reality. 

Yet, it is still regarded as an official college Committee. This means that whenever its work  has an impact,  College gets much of the credit, despite offering no funding. Many may not know, for example, that the reason that college catering offers dairy-free milk options is because of an initiative launched by GCC during a previous Green Week. 

Trinity Student Union Environmental Officer and GCC co-chair Nathan Hutchinson Edgar expressed his frustration about this to Trinity News, emphasising that the lack of payment or recognition leaves students unmotivated to do more: “There is no decision-making power, accountability from College or significant financial support for GCC. Yet on College sustainability documents, they are both suggested as the only forum for input by the College community into the sustainability strategy and as a key part of implementing this strategy. This is ridiculous because College is essentially underfunding the Sustainability Office while simultaneously relying on the unpaid labour of staff and students to implement its plan.” 

For Hutchinson Edgar, “The one real success of [this year’s Green] Week was the sculpture competition. I really liked it, I think it forced us to confront alternative imaginings of the world. It also engaged everyone who went through campus.” However he emphasised how it relied on the volunteer work of one individual, Trevor Woods: “if he hadn’t done the work it wouldn’t have happened.”  

However, most of those involved on the Committee who spoke with Trinity News stressed that a lot of work is done behind the scenes, including efforts to improve the campus waste disposal system: “When Green Campus started in ‘92, there were  only one or maybe two streams of waste. There are now 18 streams of waste on campus. The University has set up all of these different ways of managing the waste,” Hennessy said. Mr. Hackett agreed, citing the recent refurbishment of the Rubrics: “they put geothermal in that whole building. Because it’s … a listed historic building, they can’t change the windows, the facade, but they did make it environmentally friendly and efficient in its heating.” 

Many student activists, however, believe that College often does not prioritise green issues.  This is particularly the case with regards to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNT). FFNT – signed by over a 100 cities globally – is an initiative focused on accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. While the College administration could sign it, they haven’t. Trinity News received a statement from one student activist who expressed their frustrations with College leadership over this issue: “Trinity’s failure to sign the FFNT – a Treaty which is global South-led and confronting fossil capital –  is a symptom of the fact that their engagement with sustainability has been incredibly superficial,” they said. “They are complicit in genocide through their ties to the war industry, particularly Israeli institutions, and their commercial partnership with Coca-Cola, the world’s largest plastic polluter. They demonstrate disinterest in environmental justice by perpetuating the current housing crisis which makes Dublin an unlivable city. Trinity seems to think that students – who have always formed an integral part of both environmental and social justice movements – will be pacified by some ribbons and a sign. This is evidently not true.” they said. 

[appearance of] “campus bins…was controversial with College administration; as such, they were even covered in brick-like wallpaper at a point to see if this would improve their aesthetic.”

Mr. Hackett explained that divesting from environmentally harmful industries has been difficult for the College, particularly in light of state budget cuts in recent years. However, he agreed that on a college-level, there are often administrative roadblocks. For example, GCC called for the campus bins to be upgraded so that they comprised of two compartments, one for recycling and one for litter. While these were eventually installed and exist throughout campus today, their appearance was controversial with College administration; as such, they were even covered in brick-like wallpaper at a point to see if this would improve their aesthetic.

With all of this said, the few committed students and staff involved in GCC want to see Green Week expand in years to come. This year, as secretary, Hennessy has created a number of sub-committees with more targeted goals. She hopes that this will hold people to account  and keep them focused on turning their great ideas into reality. 

“I think all we can do is try … And that’s what we’re doing…engaging students and staff members to think about a topic that is complex and overwhelming…

Jane shared a similar optimistic outlook, explaining that “I think all we can do is try … And that’s what we’re doing…engaging students and staff members to think about a topic that is complex and overwhelming, but in a positive way, and in a way that supports people to take action.”

Ruby Topalian

Ruby Topalian is a Senior Freshman, Dual BA student of Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. She is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, having previously worked as Deputy Societies Editor.