Green Shift: “Sustainable” Jumps the Shark?

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Randall Munroe, the brains behind XKCD* (the very-funny, very-on-the-pulse cartoon site), pops the Sustainable meme-bubble  with his characteristic sarcastic wit. Click above to view larger.

I really appreciate his point, as I see it, to skewer corporate efforts to be All Things Green in thoughts, words and…..what was that again? Oh right. Actions. Embracing a set of strategic goals that honestly and truly incorporates People and the Planet is all talk until it’s expressed in positive, measurable, truthful actions.

Until then, it’s Greenwashing. A simple example of Greenwashing are repackaging campaigns that use nebulous, unregulated language like “natural” and “green” to appeal to consumers. That’s simple and obvious semi-truthful advertising.

Once you get past the easy low-hanging Greenwashing fruit, it gets murkier. For instance, how about a recycling campaign that diverts waste instead of decreasing it? Has anything really gotten better, or has the problem just moved downstream a few steps? Is that still a good thing, or good enough?

At worst, Greenwashing is fraudulent and deceitful. My newest example is the stack of  green-labeled “recyclable” batteries I spied in the supermarket last week. The packaging gimmick is that the  manufacturer will supply a postage-paid envelope to the consumer to mail the spent batteries back for earth-friendly recycling.

What are the chances that the average consumer, after popping the batteries into whatever device required them, is going to keep the packaging and take-the-steps required to secure this envelope? Nil.

The packaging is meant to make people feel better about buying these particular batteries, to get a tiny little green boost for doing the right thing, even if they don’t follow through. Even though there is nothing special about these one-use-only batteries.

(By the way, check with your municipality how to to recycle standard household-use batteries. In Essex County, New Jersey, batteries are accepted as part of regular household waste.)

(While I’m parentheticalizing, go buy some recyclable batteries, a charger, and put them in a drawer near wherever you charge all your other devices. Do yourself a favor and get enough rechargeable batteries to always have fresh ones ready to go. Think of your rechargeable batteries like socks. It’s always a good idea to have an extra clean pair. )

The important thing, in my mind, is to get under the easy surface issues and dig into the complicated, messy operational chains where real money gets spent on shared, finite energy and resources.  It’s a conversation worth having.  I, for one, am not tired of talking about Sustainability.

Read XKCD.

*Randall said I could use his image.

2 Replies to “Green Shift: “Sustainable” Jumps the Shark?”

  1. Hi CSommer,
    This is your classmate for sustainability class – the one who was asking you about your blog and :-). Please don’t use real name here as I don’t use them publicly or in blogs.

    I have been reading about these marketing tactics by companies using “green” and “natural.” Kashi is one of the greatest example. It advertises as if the food are all natural and organic but recent study has found that its quality is really low. I have also read somewhere that those energy saver stickers are also often time gimmicks!! Really not sure what to do, what to trust.

  2. Hi–Thanks for your comment and the conversation! Can you point me to more information about the Kashi cereal issue?

    On the Energy Star labels, yes, the NYT reported significant problems: See here for the 2010 article:

    And here’s an update on new stipulations rolling out as of Jan 2012:

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