EXPO Milan: Green or Greenwash?

It was super-hyped in Italy. The American First Lady even attended! But is EXPO Milan really green…or greenwashing?

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Back in 1906, when Milan hosted the prestigious World Fair, the theme of the day was “Transport,” focusing on the growing car industry and the introduction of the railway (Simplon Tunnel) that connected the boot-shaped nation to Switzerland. More than a century later, Milan is now hosting a Universal Exposition with themes  that partly resulted from that of 1906: how to deal with global warming caused by the pollution we have created, as well as the issue of how to feed our growing population.

Expo Milan

EXPO Milan: Corrupt From Day One?

There has been a long debate whether since the opening of Expo 2015, which kicked off on May 1st and lasts through October 31st, has fulfilled its mission. The “Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life” Expo has 145 participating countries supporting the themes  through architectural structures and exhibits that should bring awareness to the important issues at stake.

To begin with, the 1.1 million square metre exhibition area, hosting the nutrition-themed fair on the outskirts of Milan (Rho Fiera), began amid a series of controversies related to corruption investigations and construction delays. Criticism has further fallen on some of the sponsors of the event – McDonald’s is one – which don’t really evoke ideals of sustainability for the planet. To say the least!

Expo Milan

Nevertheless,  there are some examples on how mankind is trying to become more environmental friendly. For Expo Milano, the organisers have tried to lessen the impact of the six-month event, by encouraging the pavilion designers to work to create more sustainable designs, providing a set of guidelines for building and for procurement.

As a result, 11 of the pavilions feature photovoltaic panels and about 35 use some form of solar energy, such as solar water heaters. About 56% percent of the pavilions feature green roofs that cover half or more of their rooftop area, showing just how easy eco-architecture can be.

Expo Milan

While all pavilions must comply to certain minimum standards, organisers also launched a voluntary program called “Towards a Sustainable Expo,” which will give pavilions with the best sustainability practices a leadership award. On June 5th for World Environment Day, Mexico, Ireland and New Holland Agriculture where the pavilions that were judged as most compliant to sustainability, for their building design and use of materials, as well as their food and beverage services, furniture, merchandise, and event programming.


The winner will be announced in the upcoming months, but with uber-eco architecture ranging from the oak-tree inspired display  from Latvia, stunning Lotus pavilions constructed from bamboo from Vietnam and Italy’s breathtaking ‘energy for life’ tree display, the competition will be tough.


Fighting Hunger?

Furthermore, the food-themed Universal Exposition attests its commitment to fighting hunger and malnutrition, as well as preserving biodiversity and cutting food waste via the Milan Charter, which the Italian government aspires to be the legacy of Expo. Interesting…but a bit rich, given that McDonald’s is one of the main sponsors of the event, as I mentioned.

The Charter has been endorsed by individuals, associations, and companies, and calls on governments and international institutions to adopt rules and policies at both a national and global level to ensure a fairer and more sustainable future for the planet. It will be developed throughout Expo before being presented to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to Expo in October.

Expo Milan pizza

Yet Expo 2015, which has the spirit of an amusement park and loads of fast food consumerism, still arouses mixed feelings. Every day there are multiple (and wasteful?) gastronomical events. For example, recently more than 60 of Italy’s best pizza makers worked through the night to create the world’s longest pizza, as officially proclaimed by a Guinness World Records judge.

Erm….just how is this helping the global food crisis? On a more serious note, there was absolutely nothing at the Expo about the greatest threat to our food supply: GMOs. These are not only killing bees and preventing food from being pollinated naturally, but GMOs have also been proven to cause cancer. Yet not a word about them here.

Agnese Renzi and Michelle Obama at the Italian Pavilion
Agnese Renzi and Michelle Obama at the Italian Pavilion

Expo is also engaged in a variety of seminars, conferences and international delegations who have their say on the importance of “Feeding the Planet”.

Michelle Obama, who has always been a strong advocate for healthy nourishment, flew all the way to Milan with her daughters Malia and Sasha to promote good nutrition and to combat obesity. But not a single speech demonised corporations for adding harmful ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, to their foods. And little was said indeed about how damaging our gluttony for animal products is, and how going vegan or vegetarian is probably the simplest way to feed the world. And couldn’t Michelle have delivered her speech by video, instead of flying here by private jet?


A Star Studded Event

The list of prestigious guests who came to Expo also included European heads of state, such as Hollande from France, Cameron From Great Britain, Putin From Russia and royalty like Queen Mathilde from Belgium and Queen Letizia from Spain. All of whom flew in by private jet, of course.

It all seems like a huge exercise in PR, especially since most of these leaders were also busy at the event trying to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which would give corporations greater facility to actually sue governments who block their real or even projected profits by banning harmful substances they produce, such as GMOs.

Organisers of EXPO Milan have said the opening month went beyond their expectations, with 2.7 million people visiting the site, and numbers keep going up. And no wonder: there are plenty celebrities to spot and some incredible eco-architecture to see here.

But  frankly, though this Expo was devoted to all things ‘green’, it seems to have been more of an exercise in ‘greenwashing’ than anything.


Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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