“Non-toxic! Safe for children! Environmentally friendly!” my carpet spot remover says along side a list of other benefits like ‘not tested on animals!’ and ‘safe around pets’. But a quick read through the ATSDR fact sheetsummary of the active ingredient 2-butoxyethanol confirms that while it does evaporate quickly, it doesn’t look like any long term studies have been done to find out what environmental effects it was once in our air and that exposure to this chemical in animals has been shown to cause hemolysis, reproductive problems and birth defects, as well as respiratory illness in humans when exposed to large amounts.
Corporations are listening to us. They are aware of our safety and environmental concerns with the products we use regularly to build and maintain our homes, or feed and cloth our families. But their listening has not produced a large amount of genuinely safe and natural products for us to use instead, but rather a multi-million dollar marketing industry referred to by environmentalists as ‘green washing’.
From environmentally friendly disposable scouring pads, to organic processed foods and gentle chemical soaps with all natural scents, the prevailing message we are being fed through this green washing is that we can buy our way out of all our problems; that the system can fix itself. It’s like marketing ‘light’ cigarettes as a healthier alternative to ‘regular’ cigarettes.
It is a message that I believe evolved in response to boycott activism. Said to have started in the United States with the Hitherto boycott in 1765 to protest the Stamp Act, the word boycott actually originated in Ireland in the late 1800’s and the practice became increasingly popular throughout the 20th century, during the civil rights movement, and with more recent popular boycotts like the 1984-94 boycott of California table grapes, and the ongoing Nestle boycott.
The over-all success of consumer boycotts vary, but the message, that you have power as a consumer, and to let your consumer choices speak for you, makes sense. If a business practice ceases to be profitable then there is no longer reason for it to continue. What has happened is that a few brilliant marketing executives have recognized the power of ‘consumer activism’ and have found a clever way to turn it on its side.
Participating in a consumer boycott makes the average consumer feel like an activist, to make the deliberate decision to actively withdraw your support of a product or company is empowering and creates the sense that we are changing the world from our shopping carts. So it would stand to reason that if NOT spending money on one product makes you feel empowered, then surely you would feel even more empowered by SPENDING money on products that represent the causes you are passionate about. Now, if that product that represented a cause you are passionate about was more expensive than its morally inferior counterparts, then spending your money on it would be a real financial sacrifice, and may make you feel like you’ve done the right thing even though it has inconvenienced you.
It is a ploy that works more often than any of us would like to admit. When I bought the aforementioned carpet cleaner I simply stumbled upon a collection of stain removers, remembered that I had been so far unsuccessful at removing a particular stain from my carpet at home, and scanned the shelf full of cleaners for the lowest cost brand. When I found it I read the bottle then noticed that the same brand also had a ‘child friendly and biodegradable’ version that was only a dollar more. Sold, hook, line, and sinker.
So how do we avoid falling into the trap of green washing, like I did when I bought that carpet stain remover, and make decisions, consumer and otherwise, that are truly safe and sustainable?
I have been trying to focus on researching the products I normally buy, and being more critical about the carbon and water footprint, and manufacturing and packaging methods of those products, then finding more sustainable (often home made) alternatives whenever possible. I have been trying to always stick to the list I bring to the store so that I am less likely to make snap decisions based on phony marketing claims, and am constantly finding new ways to eliminating disposable products from my list.
What are some of the ways you avoid having green washed products end up in your shopping cart?