The term “greenwashing” is a recent addition to the vernacular. Like its cousin, “brainwashing,” the term refers to the act of malicious indoctrination. In this case, representing a sustainably questionable product, service or policy as environmentally sound or advantageous is “greenwashing.”
Conscientious consumers and businesspeople must be on the alert for so-called “green” initiatives, which might sound like a good idea but are really just masking environmental damage. I know of a recycling company with a common industry dilemma. The company collects cardboard products for recycle. Due to the limited facilities for remanufacturing these products locally, the company puts them on a truck and ships them across several states, then puts them on a boat and ships them to China. A Chinese company purchases the materials and then remanufactures them into new packaging for Apple and Nike products. This packaging is then shipped right back to the United States for consumers to buy and throw away all over again.
How sustainable, then, is the recycling of this cardboard? The cost and environmental impact of shipping the materials across the world and back is huge. Further, China’s industrial environmental standards are much lower than those of the United States. Who knows how much more environmental damage is being done in the recycling and remanufacturing process?
To further illustrate, a compelling story came to me from a colleague who buys promotional products manufactured in China. He reports that while on a buying trip in Shanghai, he was taken for a tour of a manufacturing facility. As he approached the plant, his eyes began to burn and he had difficulty breathing. Upon entering the facility he observed workers who were busy screen printing athletic bags for Nike.
The work floor was not well-ventilated, and the workers wore rags tied around their faces to try to subdue the effects of the dye fumes. When he approached some of the workers, he found that they were glassy-eyed and non-responsive, more like automatons than people. His guide assured him that this facility was one of the best in the region for its work conditions. My colleague and his partner declined to do business with the company.
This example well-illustrates that while a company may tell us that its products are being manufactured overseas under humane and sustainable conditions, it may not be the case at all. This situation was certainly not sustainable for the human beings who worked in the factory. The toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process were clearly not being used in an environmentally responsible way. Last, we must factor in the ecological cost of shipping these products across the world for sale.
Clearly, conscientious American consumers would do well to spend more dollars on fewer consumer goods, agreeing to buy items that meet higher environmental standards and demonstrating a willingness to pay more for those items. Our consumer-mad society demands more and more goods at cheaper prices, with little thought for the true human and ecological cost. We have become all too willing to believe big business and big government who tell us what we want to hear about the products we are buying, greenwashing their very profitable policies and forestalling our feelings of consumer guilt.
When purchasing products made overseas, look for the “Fairtrade Certification Mark” to authenticate a product’s human- and Earth-rights standards. Other legitimate certifications to look for on consumer items include: Green Seal, Ecologo, Healthy Child Healthy World, and Forest Stewardship Council.
Stories like these underscore the sustainability of purchasing locally made goods. We are more likely to know first-hand under what conditions items are being produced if we are purchasing them from a local source. Further, we eliminate the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions that come from long-distance shipping. In addition, studies show that consuming locally-grown foods is often more healthful, providing the body with natural immunity to indigenous pathogens.
Businesses and governments are made up of people like us. We all have an obligation to be informed, resist greenwashing and influence environmental policies by voting with our wallets.
Green tip for August
For more information and extensive references about greenwashing, please visit http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Greenwashing.