What do you care?
You purchase an environmentally friendly product to avoid damaging the environment: This primarily means conserving resources. The recipe is to buy well-made products using simple components that can be repaired, re-used and, as a last resort, recycled. We aim to minimise:
Packaging (which is a complete waste of resources and is polluting as well)
The use of resources (in manufacture, maintenance and use)
The energy consumption (in manufacture, use and transport)
Pollution (in manufacture, use and disposal)
As well as expecting a “green” product to consume a minimum of resources while it is being used, we need to measure the consumption of resources over the entire life cycle of the product. The side bar, How green is that light globe examines the complete lifecycle of that well known climate saviour, the compact fluorescent light globe.
Do you really need that?
Some products claim to exist to enhance the environment in some way but this is generally false. In general, not buying a product offers the greatest benefit of all, so the first rule is that a product must be necessary. By this rule,
A timer that switches off lights and claims to be “green” because it saves electricity is a waste.
A bread maker that mixes the dough for us consumes electricity, to save us a small amount of physical effort.
A dishwasher is a labour saving device that costs energy to manufacture and run, despite the manufacturer’s claims that it is uses less hot water than hand washing.
Each of us has to decide how important those environmental concerns are. That is an entirely personal decision.
I remember to turn off lights because my wife kindly follows me around the house reminding me.
I make more bread with a breadmaker than I do when I have to do it by hand. This saves me money, but has a negative impact on the environment.
I consider the dishwashing machine a useless and annoying household appliance: Most of my friends swear by them.
How do they cheat? Let me count the ways
Canadian environmental consultant, Terrachoice, surveyed 1018 products that made 1,753 environmental claims, to test whether those claims were justified. They concluded that 99 per cent of the products made a claim that did not withstand scrutiny.
Terrachoice decided that the problems fell into six categories which they call the six sins of greenwashing.
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: We give you energy efficiency, but a short product life, highly toxic waste or some other problem. More than half of claims commit this sin.
2. Sin of No Proof: It is very common for products to claim certification but not provide any evidence, such as a certifying authority. ‘Environmentally friendly,’ ‘Completely organic’ etc.
3. Sin of Vagueness: Many products, simply make a vague claim, such as ‘completely natural’ which may or may not be a good thing, and may or may not mean anything.
4. Sin of Irrelevance: The ‘So what?’ factor. CFC-free products: Aren’t CFCs banned? Fat-free orange juice: Isn’t that normal? Occurs only rarely.
5. Sin of Fibbing: A few products pretend to be something they are not. Cotton fabrics that claim to contain seaweed, for example. Far more common are false claims to certification.
6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: A small number of products are designed to cash in on some fad or craze, but do not make a balanced effort. E.g organically grown fruit, transported across the world.
These six sins have been very useful in examining some of the products outlined below.
The Oricom Eco series cordless phone
The phone’s claim to environmental fame is that it is 40% more energy efficient than previous models by the same manufacturer. The marketing also boasted that the packaging was recycled and minimal but it did not impress Rosy Whelan on The Generator. She said that the packaging was mostly plastic, and the charger was “typical”.
Deeming it a case of the Sin of Irrelevance, Rosy put it back in the box to return to the shop.
Even the more reputable Nokia 3110 Evolve suffers from overstating the benefits. In that case, the cover is made of 50% plant-based plastics, it uses 60% less packaging and boasts a charger that uses only 6% of the electricity specified in the Energy Star requirements. The use of plant based plastics is to be commended, but given the amount of rare minerals and toxic components in a mobile phone, it is really lip service.
The GE Eco Mastercard
General Electric is the world’s seventh largest corporation, one of the two largest manufacturers of nuclear power plants, jet engines and other military hardware.
This product claims to help the environment by putting one percent of what you pay on your purchases into carbon offsets. It publicly claimed that spending $7,200 per annum with the credit card can offset the average person’s carbon dioxide emissions. Even using the company’s own calculations there is no way this could account for more than someone’s emissions through electricity consumption.
Despite detailed information about how the calculations are performed, the company does not say anything about where the money will be spent. The eco card is part of an overall plan by GE Ecomagination and partner GreenOrder to green the company. The other projects include desalination plants, cleaner and more efficient aircraft jet engines and diesel locomotives, wind turbines, cleaner coal and solar technology, and compact fluorescent light bulbs. In other words, credit customers may be forking out dollars to help fund General Electric’s expansion and internal emission reduction program. It could even be getting paid twice for those emission reductions as well as claiming them as environmental benefits on its triple bottom line – we simply don’t know.
Certainly the sin of vagueness has been committed, possibly fibbing as well.
We don’t know a lot of things about this product, but we do know that the company follows the well oiled and despicable practice of many credit card vendors and lures customers with the offer of balance transfers, which transfer real cash payments to GE Money well before the poor sucker gets any relief from their credit card debt. Read that story in full .
Woolworths Green Stores
In 2007, Woolworth’s announced its GreenStore concept for smaller stores across the country. The stores feature energy efficient lighting, refrigeration and air conditioning. They will also discourage the use of disposable plastic bags.
This is a classic case of the sin of the hidden trade off. The real problem with supermarkets is that they rely on economies of scale to squeeze every possible cent of profit out of the entire value chain. That directly encourages large scale industrial farming, centralised storage and distribution and energy intensive packaging and preservation. These are the retail sector’s major contributors to global warming. Those contributions far outweigh any saving that in store electrical efficiency may make.
The company has a serious PR problem on its hands as small communities band together to fight the incursion of this corporate retailer and its predatory pricing and purchasing practices into their communities.
World’s worst practice.
Sick of Greenwash, the German people voted the nation’s nuclear power industry as the world’s worst example of greenwashing in December 2007. The German Atomic Forum had run a series of advertisements featuring farm animals in idyllic settings with ‘clean, green’ nuclear power stations in the background. In the offending advertisements, the nuclear industry claimed to be ‘Germany’s unloved climate protectionists’.
Of course, nuclear power stations produce very little carbon dioxide to produce the steam that turns the turbines, but they do leave behind toxic waste that lasts tens of thousands of years. Worse still, the mining and processing of uranium ore consumes vast quantities of energy and water, releases alpha particles into the atmosphere and leaves behinds poisonous heavy metals.
Go with Grandma
While the detailed analysis of any product may be too laborious for every shopper on every shopping trip, the rules that governed our grandparents approach to purchasing provide a good rule of thumb.
If you can grow it, do. It costs you practically nothing, you will get the health benefits of fresh food and no energy is wasted on processing, packaging or transport. You may need to spend some energy preserving it, but certainly no more than a factory would spend.
Make it don’t buy it. Why pay for a factory on the other side of the city, nation, world to make something you can make your self. Again, you know what’s in it, it has no packaging, or transport. If it’s food it’s good for you, if it’s an appliance you know how it works.
Buy quality that lasts. The throw-away culture we live in squanders resources that we will not have in a decade or two. I still have the kettle my parents got as a wedding present, but every kettle I’ve bought in the last two decades has lasted less than three years. This is rubbish. Literally.
Only buy what you can afford. The debt crisis comes because we want more than we need. Personal credit cards did not exist fifty years ago. I bet your Pop never said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pop it on the plastic.”
They are hardly a scientific analysis of greenwash, but they are not a bad way to avoid the sins it attempts to hide.
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Giovanni Ebono is the founder of The Generator. Ongoing analysis of Greenwash is available at www.thegenerator.com.au. Just look for the Greenwash button in the left hand menu.