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November 5th, 2009
TOPICS: What is 'green'?
If you haven’t noticed, the word ‘green’ is getting thrown around a lot these days. I go to a lot of conferences, meetings, and talking with a lot my peers about ‘green’ things and I have started to notice that although the word is around me all the time, I hardly ever use it, and if it happens to slip out I get the nasty sensation like I do when I accidentally swear in front of my girlfriend’s parents.
When people around me use it, and they’re not quoting someone else, I notice it makes me gringe a little bit and I become a little suspicious of whatever they say next. Don’t get me wrong, I like to breath clean air, drink clean water, I don’t want to get cancer and we have many other problems that need to be fixed. However, I don’t think the word ‘green’ is helping us get there.
When someone uses the word ‘green’ in reference to a product, service, action, or company I always ask these two questions, if the situation is correct and it doesn’t sound too argumentative.
1) What do you mean by the word green?
I’m always curious to see how they define it. I tend to find that most people don’t have a definition. This is especially important for businesses that are trying to be ‘green’ but never define what they mean by it.
2) Why is [insert whatever they were talking about] green?
This question usually looses people. Without a clear definition it is difficult to describe why something is or is not ‘green’.
That brings me to Reason #1: There is no USEFUL definition for the word ‘green’ in the context of environmentalism.
Anything can be ‘green’ depending on how you spin it. For example, I could make two equally compelling arguments why using glass bottles is ‘green’ and is it not.
The definition of the word ‘green’ is like the definition of the word efficient, it always depends on the parameters and the goals.
Also, ‘green’ applies to everything. Duh! Everything we do relates to the environment is some way but the current definition of the ‘green’ doesn’t address this.
What can do we do about this?
Honestly, I don’t really know but here are a couple thoughts. On a personal level, stop using the word.
On a macro level, it should be treated just like the word efficiency. It’s different for each industry, for different products or services and there are standards that determine what is or is not ‘green’ in each segment.
With the exception of Wal-Mart none of these companies make a stand and actually take a shot at defining it, they just leave it up to their users.
Reason #2: Green Washing
The lack of a definition leads to green washing by companies.
Just in case you don’t know, green washing is a company or organization that is claiming to use ‘green’ practises (whatever that is) with their products or services in order to sell more products when no real effort is being made.
Green washing is rampant. Here’s a blurb straight from Wikipedia….
In December 2007, environmental marketing firm TerraChoice gained national press coverage for releasing a study called “The Six Sins of Greenwashing” which found that more than 99% of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed for the study were guilty of greenwashing. A total of 1,753 environmental claims made, with some products having more than one, and out of the 1,018 studied only one was found not guilty of making a false or misleading green marketing claim. According to the study, the six sins of greenwashing are:
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: e.g. “Energy-efficient” electronics that contain hazardous materials. 998 products and 57% of all environmental claims committed this Sin.
- Sin of No Proof: e.g. Shampoos claiming to be “certified organic,” but with no verifiable certification. 454 products and 26% of environmental claims committed this Sin.
- Sin of Vagueness: e.g. Products claiming to be 100% natural when many naturally-occurring substances are hazardous, like arsenic and formaldehyde (see appeal to nature). Seen in 196 products or 11% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. This Sin was seen in 78 products and 4% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Fibbing: e.g. Products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. Found in 10 products or less than 1% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or “environmentally friendly” pesticides, This occurred in 17 products or 1% of environmental claims.
- The Sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists; fake labels, in other words.
There is so much green washing that there is an index that is trying to stop the issues. It’s called The Green Washing Index.
Many, including myself, will argue that green washing can be a good thing, but it still really pisses me off.
Reason #3: It doesn’t spur useful action
Due to the broad use, the lack of a clean definition, specifics, and lying companies, it makes it difficult for consumers and organizations to take meaningful action. In addition, the continued use of the word ‘green’ without figuring out exactly what it means will make action even harder.
Penn and Teller have a great skit on why some aspects of the ‘green’ movement are ‘bullshit’ as they like to say. This skit really gets to the core of the issue regarding the definition of the word and how the lack of definition spurs actions that are not useful and pretty stupid.
If you have time, watch the whole thing, it’s pretty good. The clip that starts at 13:25 highlights how environmentalists are taking advantage of a lack of definition of ‘green’ with carbon credits.
Reason #4: The word polarizes people, and it shouldn’t.
The last reason I hate the word ‘green’ is that the word divides people politically. No one wants dirty air, water, cancer or a dirty environment. I understand that the debate is more centered around the best way to eliminate these things and not if they are bad themselves.
It needs to be remembered that environmentalism is a moral issue, like child labor, slavery, or having a 40 hour work week. So, when someone asks me if I mind paying a carbon tax I respond ‘hell no’ just like I don’t mind paying taxes for roads, education, and the ‘tax’ that is associated with an economy not based on slavery.
It can be easily argued that any of these issues (child labor, slavery) limits the productivity of an economy. However, we’ve made a moral choice to eliminate child labor and salvery and I would argue the economy is better because of it.
Helping the environment is no different. This is a moral issue, not an economic issue, but it will have beneficial economic consequences. It seems like it will hurt the economy but in the short run it will only lead to innovation and growth.
My question to you
I’m always interested to hear others’ opinion on this word.
Do you think green is a useful word? Why?
Do you use the word green? Why?
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