Monday, April 21, 2008

greenwashing, and a healthy sense of skepticism

I read an article yesterday about greenwashing, and how people are growing increasingly wary of unsubstantiated or dubious claims of environmental friendliness.

Decades after the first Earth Day, many Americans suffer from ‘green’ overload.

From the article:

Sixty percent of people said they agreed with the statement, “I often wonder if a product is really ‘green’ or if the company is just saying that it is.” “What’s interesting,” Ryan said, “is that it seems that the people who know the most, who are the most interested, are the most skeptical.” That skepticism only deepens, she said, when claims come from corporations with dubious environmental records. “Oil companies and American automakers,” she said. “When they put those ads on, they’re less likely to be believed.”

The rest of the article sort of spins it like this is a bad thing, an "unintended backlash" and all that.

But, oh no, this is a good thing! People have a lot of good reasons to be skeptical--why should they trust the marketing campaigns of "corporations with dubious environmental records"? Because, honestly, does anyone really think that these companies care about anything other than making a profit?

Take Clorox, and their new line of "Green Works" cleaners. I haven't really done tons of research about it, but on the surface the actual products themselves don't seem half-bad, and for the sake of argument right now let's just say that they are indeed environmentally friendly. But then the problem is... they're made by Clorox. Does producing one line of eco-friendly cleaners negate the millions upon millions upon millions of chlorine bleach they produce? Is this one product line in any way indicative of the company as a whole going green, or are they just trying to horn in on the booming market of green products?

If Ford makes one hybrid, does that make their gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs any more environmentally-friendly? I will start to trust Ford's supposed green intentions when they only make hybrids, scooters, and bicycles, and start donating profits to fund public transit and the creation and support of human-centric (instead of automobile-centric) communities.

Which is not to say that Clorox Green Works or Ford hybrids are a bad thing. I realize that some people do need a car (although not nearly as many people who claim to "need" a car) and I personally don't know of any hybrid-only business. And one good thing about Green Works is that they are mainstream and can be found at any random Walmart or IGA, and there are still thousands and thousands of people who mean well and want to be green but don't know where to start, or don't have access to other markets. Products like Green Works are a fine jumping off point, but they are not the ultimate destination in the quest for an eco-friendly lifestyle.

With green products being such a enormously profitable market, truly concerned consumers have to be skeptical of claims or implications of eco-friendliness or social responsibility. Boca Burgers is owned by Philip Morris; Silk soymilk is owned by Dean Foods. Half the food at any random co-op or Whole Foods Market is produced by Hain-Celestial, which is owned by Heinz. Just because a product is vegetarian or made with organic oats doesn't mean it's sustainable. Eden Foods (which is one company you actually can trust) put together a collection of organic industry structure charts, originally produced by Dr. Phil Howard, that highlight who owns what in the natural food industry.

So I think it's terrifically encouraging more and more people are realizing that green is more than just a marketing tool or some PR buzzword--it's a way of life--and that true sustainability does not come prepackaged and advertised. Sustainability takes some thought and effort, and requires stepping outside of the middle America status quo. Rejecting half-assed claims of corporate greenness isn't a "backlash"--it's a revolution!

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