Greenwashing: How easy is it to ‘go green’?
As some environmental ideas become mainstream, such as ‘sustainability’ and the practice of recycling, companies are scrambling to catch up. It’s important to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truly green companies from those pretending to be environmentally friendly.
From my perspective, every company claiming to be environmentally friendly is in some way lying. One case of this fakeness is Best Buy. I worked stocking shelves in Best Buy on an overnight shift for the holidays a couple years back. Best Buy went out of its way to paint the image of an environmentally friendly tech company. Best Buy will recycle your electronics and batteries for free. Some Best Buy gift cards that year had environmental slogans. Why isn’t Best Buy green? Let me spell it out. When I was young and still in college I felt solar, wind and other alternative energies could save the planet. I travelled to Tasmania and got a big wake up call.
I worked on a small subsistence farm in Tasmania for free room and board. The farm was entirely vegetarian, there was no electricity and as much food as possible was grown on the farm, organically. Peter, the man who ran the farm, was one of the first people to question my environmental presumptions. When talking about a large pulp mill being built in Tasmania, Peter said, ‘It’s the fault of people who use electricity. You buy a light bulb that was shipped to a store in a cardboard box and packaged in paper, you’re contributing to pulp mills.’
The point wasn’t that electricity use was the worst thing you could do, obviously reading books also contributes to pulp mills. The point is that the more resources, any resources you consume, the larger your impact on the environment. Peter, in his comment, also highlights the interconnectedness of our actions in society and the environment around us. By writing this article on my laptop, using electricity and publishing it on a website to be read by other people using electricity, I’m making a compromise. I’m knowingly making a trade-off between consumption (electricity, metals, plastics, etc. in my laptop) and informing the public (that’s you, reader).
Even with solar panels producing electricity that is clean, few people think of the initial environmental impact of producing solar panels. Recycling everything from plastic bottles to electronics isn’t without its problems either. Recycling takes a lot of energy input. Besides the carbon produced from recycling, it can contribute to child labor borne from the desperation of poverty with unsafe conditions.
The best practice when it comes to deciding whether an action, a purchase or life style is ‘green’ is to do as little as possible. What I mean is, don’t buy something to support ‘green’ industry. The less you buy, the greener it is; live simply. When you do buy, buy used. Buying used contributes less energy towards production of goods. Second hand stores are often a better deal as well and sometimes profits go towards non-profit causes.
Besides simplicity, we should always think deeply and look at unintended consequences. For instance, I don’t eat meat. It’s true that meat eating contributes more of a carbon footprint than vegetarian eating. It’s also true that meat production demands more land and contributes to predator ‘control’ on wild animals. There are many other environmental reasons for being vegetarian but it’s just an example. Don’t assume an electric car is greener. Think about where the electricity for that car is coming from; consider the environmental impact of producing and shipping an electric car. If the electricity comes from solar or wind, think about the impact of installing windmills or solar panels. An easy thing to do is walk instead of drive. There’s no environmental downside to walking over driving and you might actually enjoy the environment you walk through more.
Remember that global climate change is only one of many environmental problems. Plastic is quickly replacing fish in the ocean. We’re on the edge of a massive global extinction, set to wipe out many plants, animals and fungi. Getting out and connecting to our environment is more important than ever and yet federal public lands are under attack. Kids spend more time inside and less outside connecting to the world around them and others.
What’s green and what’s just green washing is a matter of opinion in the end. The important thing is not to just believe a label or the hype around a certain product. Being green is a personal responsibility, not something that can be passed off to business or government. Trying your best and being imperfect is better than getting overwhelmed and giving up. Inform yourself, think for yourself, trust yourself.