Greenwashing: Marketing in the name of sustainability
Greenwashing is like trying to cure cancer with a pencil crayon. Paints a nice picture but probably contains lead. — C.J. Wilkins
You've no doubt seen the label "natural" chicken. And I ask "as opposed to what? Unnatural chicken?" Truth in marketing would have rubber chickens displayed next to it for comparison.
The word "natural" is a prime example of "greenwashing."
Greenwashing is a marketing ploy to make products appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. We are inundated by corporate efforts to sell products while doing little or nothing to insure they meet any definition of sustainability.
So, what are we to do?
Ask questions. Think critically. Know that almost 70% of consumers would spend more to buy a product that appeared to be a sustainable brand. Companies have a financial incentive to appear environmentally conscious.
Coca-Cola touted publicly how much plastic it is recycling, yet also stated that their customers want plastic bottles, so they keep producing them. But be suspect of the marketing hype because Coca-Cola is the world's largest polluter of plastic.
What about a label that reads "compostable?" If you have a compost heap you may say, "great, I can just toss it in." Not so. Many Keurig-style coffee pods claim to be compostable, but may take years to decompose. The label may even say, "Where facilities exist." But the facilities are few, and the pods cannot be put in curbside bins. This $10 billion industry wants to paint itself green, but not in a sustainable manner.
"Biodegradable" means the breakdown of matter by living things such as microorganisms. But in marketing parlance it means, "this product is safe and will decompose naturally." This term is hollow. Everything is biodegradable, given enough time. Certain types of plastic containers are labeled as such, but you don't want to put them in your compost bin because you'd be digging through plastic for many years.
Beware of clothing made of "ocean plastic" and "ocean waste." Plastic floating in the ocean is often too degraded to be reused. So "ocean plastic" actually refers to plastic that may be bound for the ocean, or perhaps sitting on a shore waiting to be washed to the sea.
Often only a small percentage of the clothing item contains plastic, much less ocean plastic. Additionally, microfibers that come off during wear and washing eventually enter the ocean and hence our food chain. Most plastic in the oceans will never be recovered, and when exposed to ultraviolet light, climate-warming greenhouse gasses are released. Since only 9% of the world's plastic is recycled, the best solution is to drastically reduce our consumption of plastic.
Plastic "recycling bags" marketed to hold recyclables actually contaminate the recyclables. Hefty brand recycling bags are a case in point. Any bag can "hold" recyclables, but is that bag recyclable? The bag by itself may be, but when filled with recyclables and tossed in the recycling bin, it will most likely be sent to the landfill after processing at the materials recovery facility
Paper products often proclaim "XX% recycled content." This is a meaningless number because in the papermaking process waste and trimmings fall to the floor and are then "recycled" through the system, but are not in fact recycled paper. The statement to look for is "XX% post-consumer recycled content."
Finally, a mathematical puzzler seen on some gas and hybrid automobiles is "PZEV," or "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle." Zero is nothing. Part of zero is zero. So how can a car have partial zero emissions? It either has emissions or it doesn't. It's like being partially pregnant. Either you are or you aren't.
So what can you do to sift through the noise of greenwashing?
Sharpen your senses to the marketing hype generated by companies courting the green movement and keep these things in mind:
n Ask questions. Where is this product made? What is it made of? Call customer service.
n What record does the company have regarding working conditions and environmental concerns?
n If a product manufactured by a U.S. company says "Distributed by," or "Packaged in the U.S." this does not mean it is made in the U.S.
n What is the carbon footprint? You can buy asparagus in December that is grown in Peru, or you can wait until spring to buy the local product.
Finally it is important to realize that how the environment and people were treated in making the product is the true sustainability measure, not just what the products are made from.
That's why to ensure our own health and resilience we need to grow as much of our food as possible. For good tips on growing your own food, attend the next virtual West Linn Sustainability Advisory Board Education Series seminar on Urban Gardening. It takes place on March 8 at 7 p.m. Go to the West Linn Sustainability Advisory Board web page or go to https://calendly.com/wlpl-programs/sustainability-march?month=2022-03 to register for this informative one-hour program.
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