Sustainable Saskatchewan $1.1M ad campaign: Selling the province or 'greenwashing' the problem

Sustainable Saskatchewan billboards such as this one in Montreal can be seen in 10 airports in Canada.  (Serge Cloutier/CBC - image credit)
Sustainable Saskatchewan billboards such as this one in Montreal can be seen in 10 airports in Canada. (Serge Cloutier/CBC - image credit)

If you have been in an airport in Canada recently you might have noticed an advertising campaign promoting a "Sustainable Saskatchewan."

The Sustainable Saskatchewan website and digital media campaign, launched late last year, has brought the message to 10 Canadian airports with digital ads that read: "If you're looking for opportunities to partner, innovate and sustainably develop natural resources, Saskatchewan is the best place in the world to do it."

However, critics say the government's campaign is disingenuous, focusing on emission reductions made in the agricultural sector, but failing to define what "sustainability" really means for the province in the long term.

"I would say this is more of an investment in awareness to our fellow Canadians of what we're doing here and how we're doing it," Premier Scott Moe said of the $1.1-million campaign.

Moe calls it is an invitation for Canadians to be proud of the products and materials that come from Saskatchewan and how they are made: "That is the outreach program that we are doing. You'll see it in virtually every major airport across Canada."

Moe says the first wave of the ad campaign focuses on agriculture, but it will also include other industries, such as mining, potash, and oil and gas. It will run in airports until the end of March.

"I can tell you that our customers that are buying our canola and canola oil, they're asking you how is this product being produced. The folks that are purchasing our oil are asking about methane emissions in the province and we tell them, well they're down 60 per cent relative to the year 2015.

"A great metric, one that we need to tell our customers and I would put forward that one. We need to ensure that other Canadians are aware of [it] as well."

He said the idea is to sell how Saskatchewan compares with other jurisdictions that have similar industries.

"[We're] producing potash with half the carbon content of our competitors in other parts of the world. These are strong numbers I think we as Saskatchewan residents can be so proud of."

Grant Wilson, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Regina, says the province is hitting on an issue of growing importance.

"It's certainly a requirement in this business climate to be committed to sustainability and to have commitments and efforts toward that, and I think it is something that if it doesn't generate new business it will certainly keep existing business."

Sustainable, how?

In a letter to CBC, Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) board member Glenn Wright criticized the government's approach.

Wright said the ad campaign focuses on emissions reductions already achieved in agriculture, but not what still needs to be done.

"There are no discussions of absolute emissions reductions, and only hints at the broader social and environmental objectives of true sustainable development," he wrote.

"The challenge with the word 'sustainability' is that it has been used and misused, such that it is difficult for the public to understand what the government wants 'Sustainable Saskatchewan' to imply."

He said the provincial government must take "a much broader focus beyond emissions reductions" to achieve sustainability.

Kevin O'Connor/CBC
Kevin O'Connor/CBC

Wright said while the agriculture sector has become more efficient and resilient,  more can be done to reduce emissions, protect water and biodiversity.

He said the SES wants the government to set a goal to:

  • Decarbonize the economy.

  • Commit to the United Nations' 17 sustainable development goals.

  • Co-operate with other levels of government and Indigenous and Métis nations.

  • Accelerate the necessary transition to real sustainability where we all benefit together.

Naturalist calls campaign "greenwashing"

Trevor Herriot, a Saskatchewan naturalist, is not buying what the Saskatchewan government is selling.

He referred to the 1987 definition by the United Nations Brundtland Commission, which defined sustainable development as meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

"You just roll your eyes at it because we know sustainability looks a lot different than what the current government is promoting," Herriot said.

Herriot says he has questions about how the province calculated its data and what it leaves out.

"We've heard many times about how our greenhouse emissions per capita are the highest in Canada, and Canada has some of the highest in the world, so we don't have a lot to boast about there."

"This campaign is the height of greenwashing. It's a classic move in the playbook of every right-wing populist government in the face of any criticism and the science-based facts being presented to you: Find a way to spin your own version of reality and use your platform to get it out there."

Herriot says combating climate change and becoming "truly sustainable in our energy and food systems" will come at an economic cost to the province.

"But if we don't start making those sacrifices and step up to the plate today, it's going to be so much harder in the future. And the climate change effects are already compounding. What choice do we have but to dig in?"

He said Saskatchewan's priorities should include making agriculture more sustainable, reducing emissions and protecting native grasslands.