Awash in Greenwashing   Leave a comment

Environmentalists are a picky lot. It’s definitely true that there’s really no such thing as “good enough” when it comes to being environmentally and socially friendly. As a result every green claim can be considered greenwashing to a certain degree. There are some outstanding companies that are committed to fair trade, organics, zero waste, 100% renewable energy use, and beyond the buzz words, but those are a definite minority. There are also a few companies that don’t use their sustainable practices as part of their marketing. However, then you have companies that blow one little change way out of proportion. For some reason lately it seems like I’ve seen a higher of the latter lately; and even worse seen things advertised as “green” that most definitely aren’t.

The one that sticks out to me the most is Quiznos. We had Quiznos for an all-staff meeting at work last week and the napkins and boxes were all emblazoned with this “Eat Toasty, Be Green, Do Your Part” logo. I spent most of the meeting, the remaining work day, and the following day puzzling over how eating Quiznos could possibly be a “green” choice. That catch phrase is designed to make you think that by eating one of their sandwiches, you are doing something good for the environment, or at least that’s how it reads to me. I was stumped by how eating a non-organic, meat and cheese sandwich wrapped in paper, made in a chain restaurant with a very wide distribution network, and served with an overabundance of napkins, could possibly be a decision that could be considered “doing your part”. Especially since if you compare Quiznos with many other sub shops, wouldn’t Quiznos have a higher energy usage since they toast all of their sandwiches? After mulling this over for a while I read the fine print on one of the napkins that I had kept while I figure this out. It says: “Our first step is making environmentally responsible choices with our packaging.” All this marketing, the super catch phrase, the green ink printing, the fancy logos, big recycled symbol, is all because the use 100% recycled paper for their napkins, towels, and tissue. That’s it?!?!?! And further investigation reveals that it says 100% recycled, not 100% post-consumer recycled, which makes the claim even less impressive. As I said, environmentalists are good at saying “but you could do more!”, but this case is a great example of greenwashing where one minor change is blown up into something way more than it is. For as little effort as converting to recycled napkins requires, the marketing is huge.

It is hard not to succumb to greenwashing, since it requires always thinking (that’s part of the “conscious” living thing) about the claim. Does the claim make sense? Does it even apply to the product (like a big “fat-free” sticker on a bag of hard candy that is 100% melted sugar, flavor, and color)? How trustworthy is it? Third party certification is best because that means an unaffiliated party agrees that it meets a specific set of criteria (think USDA organic certified by Oregon Tilth, sustainable forest products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, or fair trade goods certified by TransFair). Self-certification claims often hold no water or are not backed up with any publicly available evidence. Of course some things have to be self-certified because there are no certification programs. And there are, unfortunately, non-reputable third party certifications. Finally, I always ask myself if the particular product is the best option available, because if it easy to “go greener” (or not too difficult anyway) than why not do it?

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