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  • Getting to Green

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

A new sheriff in town
December 1, 2008 - 7:27am

One of the most frequent topics when sustainability wonks get together, in person or online, is "greenwashing". Greenwashing -- the design and production of products which can be marketed as contributing to sustainability, but which in practice change little or nothing for the better -- is a frequent practice and an even more frequent accusation. Would switching to product X, or service Y, or process Z really reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Are the benefits real? Is the approach well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed? Is the manufacturer doing the right thing internally, but using raw materials which are themselves extracted or transported in a non-sustainable way?

So many questions. So many factors. So much to know. So little (truth be told) in-house expertise.

When it comes to getting sustainable, we don't have time to wait for folks who are better qualified, better educated, more expert than ourselves. I know at Greenback, we'll welcome those folks with open arms, if and when they arrive. Our academics (at least some of them) are actively engaged in doing the scholarly and educational work which will provide more and better answers. But, as I've mentioned before, the hard questions don't fit well into our traditional academic disciplines -- they're in fields like "industrial ecology". (Does your school have a program in Industrial Ecology? Greenback certainly doesn't.) Our academy (writ large) needs to reinvent itself before it can invent the answers we need.

In the meantime, what would help those of us whose boots are on the ground (well, it's been kind of a wet and muddy fall, so "in the ground" might be more accurate) is some knowledgeable, honest and independent arbiter who will cut through the marketing hype and qualify/quantify/certify those products which actually make a substantial contribution to sustainability. The good news is that a credible candidate for just such a role is throwing its organizational hat into the ring.

When I was small (well, smaller than I am now), my dame wouldn't buy any electrical appliance which didn't have a little cardboard washer on the cord. The washer was printed with the trademark of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and it certified that the appliance was safe for consumer use. Electric appliance safety may be less of an issue than it was in decades past, but UL is still around and has found a new calling. UL is undertaking to be the certifier of choice for product sustainability claims. They've got a history of independence and integrity which well suits them to the job.

Details (such as they exist) are here. Most of the verbiage is still phrased in the future tense, but you can sign up to be kept in the loop as things progress. I'm certainly encouraged; this is a step in the right direction. It's not the only step we need -- by a long shot -- but it's a big one.


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