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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

22 November 2009

Death to "greenwashing": strategies for debunking green claims

Huh? is right.  Product labeling is known to be a leading cause of the sudden onset of severe greenophobia thanks to no fewer than hundreds of green designations sprayed across all kinds of products and services.

If you've ever exercised good intentions by comparing a few similar products side-by-side, you may have been frustrated by similar terminology that doesn't offer a strong basis for comparison. For example, one product might be marketed by different manufacturers or under different brands as "100% recycled", "100% recyclable", and "Made from recycled materials." If you're loading up a grocery cart with dozens of items, it gets cumbersome and is downright frustrating to stay on-guard for these varying claims because each one requires a time-out to decode and evaluate.   

At the consumer products level, claims can be rampant and regulation is largely voluntary or covered under existing advertising guidelines. Even consumer products that seem innocuous such as small appliances, gadgets, and household goods can bear enormous weight from an envrionmental perspective.  The shear size and global nature of the consumer products market amplifies the claims made on a single product over millions of purchases, making the impact every bit as serious as what you'd expect from big ticket items such as vehicles.

In the free-for-all that is the consumer products market, here are some good places
to start to get a handle on green product claims, or avoid the need for them whatsoever:

Acknowledge that not everything can be "green"
There are many products in our purchasing vocabulary that just aren't green.  They've been made the same way for generations and may persist as antiquated giants long into the future.  If you think about things that look the same way in your home as they did in your grandparents' home, it's a good indication that you're dealing with a legacy product that requires a unique approach.  To be a more efficient consumer of the big volume items that surrounding you, think old school.  Buying/selling through sites like Craigslist can instantly double the useful life of a product. 

If something doesn't come in the green variety, you still have a few of tools at your disposal.  Creativity tops the list of ways to green up nearly any purchase.  How about a snow blower, for example? Not the greenest item in the world.  It burns gasoline, took hundreds of pounds of materials to produce, and sits in your garage unused for most of the year.  Go in on the purchase with a few neighbors. You've instantly decimated the environmental impact and saved money, with no conceivable downside.

Zoom out.  Come up with a plan that pertains to a category rather than an individual product.
If you choose to green up your purchasing habits categorically rather than at the indvidual product level, you'll have a much more productive and less exhausting experience.  Manufacturers and marketers go to great lengths to come up with "spin" to differentiate individual products that are quite simply not that unique from the myriad of close alternatives.  Creative labeling is part of what allows multiple brands to coexist with insignificant differences in the actual product.  To avoid finding yourself in the dreaded situation of reading labels side-by-side, endlessly calculating unit prices, and scrutinizing ingredients, try heading into your purchasing activities only after deciding what types of products you're going to focus on. 

In certain product categories, you're going to simply buy the brands you already trust at the prices you already expect because scrutinizing every detail will not result in measurable improvements.  Pharmaceuticals are one example.

Other categories of products (red meat for example) just aren't going to be green no matter how hard you try, so your plan will have to include reducing consumption or finding alternatives. 

Some products are already as green as they're going to get (locally sourced produce for example), or are already counting toward your environmental goals by actively reducing your footprint on one or more dimensions. 

There are few major categories of products that are typically major offenders with substantial impact on your green purchasing objectives:
  • Single serving products (typically packaging can outweigh actual product!) - single use razors, many snack foods, travel-sized products
  • Anything marketed as "disposable" (often contain mixed materials that are difficult to recycle) servingware and plates, cups, batteries, diapers
  • Bottled water (just about the worst idea and most brilliant marketing gimmick in the history of humankind) The Greenophobe has lots of suitable alternatives to talk about.
  • Frozen foods (require much more energy in their lifecycle than the caloric energy they contain, typically not healthful, and are loaded with mixed packaging)
Sweat the small stuff.
Large purchases such as automobiles, major appliances, and technology have received the majority of the attention over the years when developing environmental labeling standards.  Today, big ticket purchases carry government ratings such as EnergyStar that address both energy consumption and operating cost -- two factors The Greenophobe is very concerned with.  Most consumers apply at least some informed scrutiny to these major products.

The same cannot be said for the smaller purchases we make on a daily or weekly basis.  Comparitively, little products which seem innocuous end up resulting in a "death by a thousand cuts." In other words, the little things can together make a big impact and often fly under the radar when it comes to environmental evaluation because, well, they're little.

What a product is made from and how it's made are just two of the considerations that influence its overall footprint.  Many times, how you use the product and how you dispose of it will comprise the majority of the impact.  For example, a tiny $10 gadget that you plug-in and forget about might continuously draw 10 watts of what's known as "vampire power" (energy consumed even when you're not actively using a device, such as when it's in standby mode or plugged-in but not performing a function).  Over the life of the appliance, it ends up drawing thousands of kilowatt hours of energy with a substantial financial and environmental cost.  Its footprint from use far exceeds what it took to make it or to dispose of it.

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