Sustainability: Few guidelines lead to green manipulation

by John Anderson

Artwork courtesy of Omar Rodriguez
Artwork courtesy of Omar Rodriguez

Let’s use our imaginations. It’s January and you’ve got an itch. You want — no, you need — strawberries. You go to Henry’s Farmers Market or Trader Joe’s because you love the world. Organic — nothing but the best for Mother Earth. Look at you, bursting with pride. You enjoy those strawberries; you’ve earned them. Don’t be too pleased with yourself yet, though. Take a second look — where are they from if it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere? Argentina. They were farmed with near-slave labor, packaged and transported overland in diesel trucks to the port and shipped by boat around the world so you could get your fix. Still feel good about yourself?

It isn’t completely your fault. Green is the new black. Companies the world over are taking our green fervor to heart, and to the bank. Product greenwashing reflects a growing consumer interest in being environmentally conscious. In some cases, things really are changing for the greener, in others our good intentions are being exploited. You’re trying to be a good world citizen, to make the right choices with how you spend your money. While you should be able to recognize a concept such as “clean coal” is absurd, often deceptive and misleading labeling makes being a good Earth steward difficult. Putting a product in green packaging and labeling it natural means nothing. In fact, the word “green” is not attached to an environmental standard at all. There is a growing need for universal green standards, and a standardized validation system to give the label weight.

Obviously, companies want you to feel good about using their products. Even brands inherently destructive to the environment are manipulating us into considering them environmentally sound. The branding is clever: Look at this cool thing, feel good about yourself and forget about what we actually do. Aquafina and Dasani both have huge ad campaigns touting their reduced plastic and “plant bottled” designs. Honda has invested huge amounts in “greening” their brand, all while selling greenhouse-gas emitting products. These are all good programs, but we need to keep in mind that if we as consumers truly want to be green, we shouldn’t buy into these products because they are quintessentially not green.

The false sense of security absorbed from buying green is the real danger. Feeling comfortable in our choices makes us complacent, and we stop demanding further environmental consciousness from our companies. Even in cases when we want more vital information about how a product is produced, it is usually unavailable. There is no way to tell where the grain used to make bread was grown, if the seeds were from Monsanto (a source of personal anguish for me), if unethical practices were used in production. There must be more transparency, more documentation of food production, and we consumers must demand this.

Ultimately, labeling a product “organic” and “environmentally friendly” is meaningless without credible certification. Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Oregon Tilth certify products organic; other groups such as Leaders in Energy and Environment Design, the Green Business Bureau and GreenBiz are already in place to certify for sustainability and environmentally sound business practices. While many groups use USDA guidelines to certify organics, a universal seal provides consumers with some peace of mind regarding product labeling. Why not label all certified organics as USDA approved, instead of slapping the consulting firm’s logo on the packaging?

Beyond organics, no universal standards exist to define environmental friendliness. Why not establish criteria for Earth-friendly products, and force brands touting themselves as “green” to meet those standards? High requirements across the board for sustainable certification, perhaps under the regulatory purview of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would go a long way in further legitimizing groups similar to GreenBiz.

Additionally, certification groups should go a step further than listing a company’s contact info on their online databases. They should publish the relevant green, organic, sustainable product information for the consumer to review prior to making their shopping choices. Such a resource is a fantastic method for empowering consumers to make good decisions with their dollars.

I’m not done with you, consumer. Our imagination exercise earlier shows we are culpable in this problem. We have a responsibility to make informed and intelligent decisions about what we buy. You aren’t protecting the environment if you buy food out of season, even if it is organic. The hybrid you’re eyeing still uses gas and has a battery filled with lead and acids. Ultimately your responsibility is to be intelligent and not to accept a product as “green” just because a company says it is. Not all the relevant information is available, but a bit of research and some common sense can reveal quite a bit about allegedly sustainable products. Remain suspicious, remain vigilant and start demanding transparency and accountability from the brands you use every day.

—John Anderson is an ISCOR senior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.