When China won its bid to host the Summer 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, one of its biggest selling points to the International Olympic Committee was that the games would serve as a catalyst for cleaning up the enormously polluted capital. The Chinese Olympic Committee continues to highlight their efforts to green the games. However, the "Goals & Concepts" section of the Beijing Olympic website reads like a bad college paper from an environmental science major with strong feelings on the subject, but little of relevance to actually say.

"Environmentally friendly technologies and measures will be widely applied in environmental treatment to structures and venues," one passage reads. "Urban and rural afforestation [sic] and environmental protection will be widely enhanced in an all-round manner.

Environmental awareness will be promoted among the general public, with citizens greatly encouraged to make 'green' consumption choices and urged to actively participate in various environmental improvement activities to help better the capital's ecological standards and build a city better fit for all to enjoy."

While clumsily executed (or translated), this is a clear example of greenwashing. Hoping to win the games, China made promises to clean and green the host city despite its horrific pollution and the close proximity of the country's industrial heartland directly upwind.

As the opening ceremony approaches, it doesn't look like the country is even close to being ready, and China's attempts to spin good press from its blatant eco-propaganda could blow up in its face. While Chinese officials assure the rest of the world that they will have fixed the problem by next year, observers worry that dense air pollution will force marathon runners to compete with face masks. Athletes are already protesting the environmental conditions, and the U.S. Olympic team says it will be staying in South Korea, only flying in to compete and then flying back out. (Check out this excellent Wired story to see just how bad the problem still is.)

China should be worried. If things don't improve quickly, the country could be dealing with a global dose of bad publicity due to overreaching on environmental cleanup. This is a marketing mistake on a scale never before seen in Olympic history.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Pollution and bad press
China made vague promises about its commitment to greening the games.