Another Inconvenient Truth

Fast_companycom_jpegOriginally posted March, 2008
By David Roberts , Fast

The reason why companies greenwash their products.

You can’t swing a dead hippie in a big-box store these days without
hitting some sort of green boast on a label. Partially recycled. Energy
efficient. Eco-friendly. Natural!

Off the top of your head, how many of these claims do you suppose are
bogus or misleading in some way? A quarter? One-half? Try 99.9%.

That’s the startling conclusion of research from TerraChoice
Environmental Marketing. Of the 1,018 green-advertised products it
reviewed last fall, all but one committed one of the "six sins of
greenwashing." Yikes.

That sounds like a call for tighter standards and more legal
enforcement–perhaps some hefty fines, even a boycott or two. Force
companies to be honest, right?

Sure. But there are deeper, less comfortable issues in the background
of the greenwashing debate. While there’s certainly a role for better
oversight of green marketing, there are built-in limits to green
honesty in a wealthy materialist culture.

More than half of the eco-labels on today’s products, according to
TerraChoice’s research, hype some narrow eco-friendly quality (say,
recycled content) while omitting mention of more significant
environmental drawbacks, such as manufacturing intensity or travel
costs. This is called the "sin of the hidden trade-off." Now, you might
say it’s not fair to call that greenwashing. After all, how many
products today were not manufactured in overseas factories with lower
labor and environmental standards? How many were not shipped long
distances? Or wrapped in excess packaging?

We’re more familiar with these trade-off traps elsewhere. Take health.
What constitutes a healthy lifestyle is no great mystery: Exercise
regularly and eat right. As food journalist Michael Pollan so pithily
put it, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

That philosophy doesn’t move a lot of processed food. A bag of potato
chips may, in fact, be lower in sodium or higher in fiber than the
competition. But let’s face it: No bag of chips will ever be healthy. A
person committed to living a healthy lifestyle generally won’t eat
salty, deep-fried food. In that sense, chips can’t make health claims
without committing the sin of the hidden trade-off. The same is true
for the vast bulk of the food products in the supermarket. (I’m looking
at you, Go-Gurt.)

The challenge of green living is similarly simple: Achieve the same
quality of life using less stuff and less energy. A truly green
consumer won’t buy 8,000 square feet of bamboo flooring because the
label said it had been hand-rubbed by Nepalese children for a fair
wage; she’ll dump the McMansion and try to live in a walkable area
close to work. A green business will not deploy teams of researchers to
figure out which 20%-post-recycled-content copy paper to use; it will
offer free bus or subway vouchers, start a carpooling program, and let
workers telecommute one day a week. Being efficient on the big stuff
packs much more environmental punch than the benefits that come from
choosing between competing light-green product A and the kelly-green
product B.

The uncomfortable fact for many green marketers–and targets of that
marketing–is that genuinely going green would mean giving up most of
the products and services that clutter our consumer culture. It would
mean simplifying, valuing time and people over stuff. How can most
products avoid the sin of the hidden trade-off? With a simple label:
"You don’t really need this."

Greenwashing isn’t merely a result of poor labeling standards and
consumer protection. It’s part and parcel of an economy built on trade
in material and energy waste. Until we are collectively ready to really
go green, greenwashing will be with us. Naturally.

Green Business David Roberts also covers green for Grist, an online environmental magazine.

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