November 5th, 2009

Why I hate the word ‘green’ and you should too

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.

There are some companies that are trying to do this but they’re all in their infancy: RateItGreen, IzzitGrren, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index, The Global Reporting Initiaitve.

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.

In April 2009, TerraChoice published a second report on the subject. This report noted the emergence of a seventh Sin – the ‘Sin of Worshiping False Labels’.[14]

  • 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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Chris Williams

About Chris Williams

Chris Williams is the editor of Green Light Distrikt and Chief Marketing Officer at HeatSpring . He has experience in business development, prototyping and new venture research with a focus on geothermal heat pumps, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technologies. Chris is an IGSHPA accredited geothermal installer and NABCEP certified solar installer. Chris is focused on solving customer facing issues in the creation and adoption of clean energy technologies and products. Chris has installed over 300kW of solar and tens of geothermal systems. He's invented the PV Pal , developed many trainings at HeatSpring, publishes the NABCEP Study Guide , the Hitchhikers Guide to Cleantech and has done due diligence research for Urgent VC . Feel free to connect with him @topherwiliams , on Linkedin , or through email about new ventures, collaborating, writing, research or whatever is on your mind.

  • md.isms.

    This was a very interesting article. I think the less new, and shiny side of the word “green” is seldom looked at, especially these days when everyone seems to act as though they are going to get brownie points for getting that raw, vegan, hemp-fiber dog shampoo.

    I’m kind of torn on this topic. I feel as though I have seen both sides of the spectrum with the word “green” and its use. In some ways, I feel like the word in itself has been a marketing tool. Products jump in value when they give off that “green” impression. Even products that are not USDA organic certified, or raw, or vegan, or all-natural put a little stamp that says “NEWER, GREENER PRODUCT!” and if you read the bottle, the ingredients are the same, the bottle was just recycled. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a bad thing–good does come of it, in my opinion.

    While I think “Green” can find her way into the center of a marketing gimmick, I can’t complain too much. My mother, who drives a gas guzzling tank has started being more aware about her product use (reading ingredients, labels, etc) and the woman uses the word “green” often. Now, her awareness comes from outside sources–magazines tell her to try this new organic, green product! She is told her kitchen will be cleaner if she uses this “green” product. She isn’t thinking so much about our planet, more so this new trend, fad.

    In my peer group, and circle of friends, I find that word sparsely used. Many of my friends work for renewable energy companies, organic farms, convert their cars to biodiesel, etc. My mom refers to them as “so green!” They laugh. We spend a lot of time in the forest, at the river, in the mountains. We are close with this planet, value this planet. I don’t see a whole lot of power in that word and I think it takes away from the overall beauty and wonder in the earth. People can now do their part at a distance, dismissing real action. Buying a product with a little stamp, I believe some think they are doing their part, contributing to the preservation of our home.

    But if people like my mother, who are slowly adapting to “GREENER LIFESTYLES!” for any reason–from any influence, well, how mad can we be? If these companies are aiming to the general public, a wide audience, then at least some change for the better is happening. I think it will be a very, very slow conversion to national awareness, and this word being thrown around could be viewed as a somewhat pathetic, but hopeful step in that direction.

    I can’t hate them for trying. So while I have cut down on my personal use of the word “green,” I don’t roll my eyes when my mom shows me her new “green” lavender dish soap. I just tell her it smells good.

  • Matty

    I don't get the use of 'green', myself. It's just a PR term. The whole of the Earth is many vast colors and although plants are generally green or have green due to chlorophyll, ecological awareness should extend to include far more than simply plants. There are many other living things. If we're about saving Earth, I think the closest color word for would actually be 'blue' because of the majority of the surface being ocean. However, even that is gimmicky PR crap.

  • Matty

    I don't get the use of 'green', myself. It's just a PR term. The whole of the Earth is many vast colors and although plants are generally green or have green due to chlorophyll, ecological awareness should extend to include far more than simply plants. There are many other living things. If we're about saving Earth, I think the closest color word for would actually be 'blue' because of the majority of the surface being ocean. However, even that is gimmicky PR crap.

  • Fr33energy

    Terrachoice is a for-profit company that created a bias marketing campaign to push Ecologo (the “green” logo they manage). My wife bought some Ecologo product a while back and noticed greenwashing on the label. What a farce! (that makes Terrachoice hypocrites…) Ecologo standards are old and do not really represent environmental leadership. Check out their website and download the standards. Shame on Terrachoice for pointing the finger at others, when they cannot deliver. Most eco labels are not worth paying extra money, because we have no idea of the environmental savings. All we have is meaningless marketing spin and bad marketing campaigns. It’s all a scam. Beware!

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