• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability commandment #9

Greenwashing is worse than not washing at all.

January 15, 2015

Never purchase any product that is promoted by means of false sustainability claims.

OK, it might be necessary to qualify the word "never" a bit.  Sometimes, under some circumstances, you may have no alternative to purchasing a greenwashed product.  But, to be hard-nosed, those cases are rarer than hen's teeth.  Most of the time when we rationalize a greenwashed purchase by saying "I didn't have any choice", what it really boils down to is "assuming I was going to purchase a product like this, then I had no choice but to purchase one promoted through greenwashing."  That's a pretty significant assumption.

Greenwashing is all around us, and the greenwashers are getting better at their job.  Rather than simply lying about how a product is made or how ecologically harmless it is, marketers now find a way to imply that a product is sustainably produced without actually making any falsifiable claim.  Some chicken is "raised without antibiotics", but they don't say what other kinds of chemicals were administered.  A product is "100% recyclable", but what percentage of the material actually gets recycled in a manner that saves energy or raw materials or reduces pollution?  A brand of soda claims to now be produced using a process less wasteful of water, but "less wasteful" is still wasteful.  Bottled water encapsulated in "plant-based material" is still far less sustainable than perfectly good water right out of the tap (or filtered tap water, if your prefer).  And any product that claims to be "100% natural" but can only be purchased wrapped in a layer of 100% synthetic plastic is inherently ludicrous.  (And would be, even if "100% natural" were a meaningful phrase.  Which it isn't.)

It can be hard for most of us to parse advertising language that falsely implies sustainability out of the constant stream of advertising language that falsely implies . . . I'm not sure what, but it certainly sounds virtuous.  Image advertising on TV, in magazines, on billboards and on the web has gotten far more prevalent as the market for consumer goods has become more polarized.  Advertising a sale at your local grocery store, aimed at the 99%, is pretty straightforward -- price, availability, how long that price will be in effect.  But advertising any product which promises exclusivity or cachet or top quality in any form is anything but straightforward, and (at least for the moment) an implication of sustainability is one of the ways marketers attempt to create cachet -- false, if need be.  It's how you target the socioeconomic elite -- the ones with lots of disposable income.

While greenwashing in the form of subtle sustainability implications can be hard to identify, two pretty easy tests come to mind. 

  • First, if a whole class of product creates social, economic or ecological damage, then there's no way any product in that class can be sustainable.  Soda pop is inherently unhealthy, regardless of how little petroleum goes into bottles for it.  Casino gambling creates social problems, economic problems, and untolled unnecessary automotive travel regardless of how efficient the lighting on the slot machines might be. 
  • Second, any product designed for single (or very limited) use is inherently unsustainable.  If it's a product for medical professionals (or some similar group), there may be contagion-prevention benefits to its disposability, but the sustainability issues haven't gone away -- they've merely been trumped.  And most disposable products aren't for professional use, they're targeted at general consumers.  Pretty much every disposable consumer product has a reusable alternative -- often, the reusable form was the model for the one that's now disposable.  The reusable one still works just fine.  No matter how ecologically responsible the disposable product is said or implied to be, it can never measure up to reusability.

Come right down to it, most greenwashing (like most consumer marketing in general) is intended to get you and me to purchase more physical product or more of someone else's time and labor than we have any real need for.  Greenwashers are just like other marketers -- they'll say pretty much anything that's been demonstrated to get the rest of us to spend more money than we otherwise would.  Our consumerist economy depends on needless spending to fuel its continuing growth.  But we all know that no growth goes on forever.  And we all know that needless spending, by its very definition, doesn't much improve our individual lives.

In terms of teaching against greenwashing, then, there are at least two major thrusts.  One is simply to teach our students to read and interpret with a critical eye.  As I told my children from age three, all the commercials on TV are lies -- the game is to figure out how and to what intended effect the nice lady or dinosaur is lying.  The second is to teach our students to think about and evaluate any transaction as individuals.  Regardless of what the folks on TV or the other kids on campus are doing, what real need does a particular product address, how well does the product address the need for you as an individual, and what other opportunities will you be giving up if you purchase the product in question?  If our alums are going to be consumers (and in this society that's pretty much a given), let's teach them to be intelligent, responsible, thoughtful consumers.  Mindless consumption isn't behind all of our current sustainability problems, but it's behind a lot of them.

In what courses or disciplines can we facilitate that learning?  Any class that involves reading can help students learn to read more critically, just as any class that involves writing can (at least in theory) help them learn to be better writers.  And any class that discusses decisions or decision-making can help students learn to make decisions more intentionally, which means more thoughtfully, which (I can only hope) is likely to mean more sustainably.



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