Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Green Washing

“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?


Jenn @ Connected Mom said... [Reply to comment]

I also think when we buy products from companies that produce other questionable items, we give their entire operation a rubber stamp. For instance, I can't get behind the Dove campaign because Unilver produces products like Axe. Bit of a mixed message.

I think this is an area where buying small and handmade is the best way to go. A mom who makes natural products in her home is something I can support. I really can't get behind big corporations and all their washing techniques.

jaemama said... [Reply to comment]

Great post. I truly believe in nonconsumer-activism. Gandhi's first step in his peaceful movement was to inspire the Indian people to produce and wear their own, nonBritish, garments. Granted this would mean their clothin g was sans color and a little less stylish, but it meant it shifted the benefactor and empowered his people. I use my "dollar votes" by repurposing, reusing (thrift, craigslist, mommy circles), and making my own (cleaners, bath products, and food.)

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

I definitely agree. I try to buy from small local businesses as often as possible. But I have run across a few local 'eco-friendly' mom & pop businesses that are themselves, a total green wash! but in terms of environmental sustainability small local businesses are usually a safe bet.

jaemama said... [Reply to comment]

I should also mention hat all of my nonspending then affords my family more locally produced and organic goods.

Carla said... [Reply to comment]

What I'm finding is the most difficult is to gradually switch to a healthier diet AND to more sustainable living, especially on a budget. A little bit at a time I guess. :D

Pocket.Buddha said... [Reply to comment]

@Carla I totally know what you mean about being on a budget. I think the best thing I've found is that the really truely honest to goodness eco-friendly and sustainable choices are usually cheaper than the alternative.

The home made non-toxic cleaner I've switched to costs me less than a penny per liter, and cloth diapering, breastfeeding, whole foods, and energy saving habits & products all save us LOADS of money.

and like Jaemama said, all of the money that gets saved on freecycling or home making and repurposing can be put towards other things that may cost a little extra, like organic local produce and the like.

It is overwhelming at times though. I like to break everything down into small projects that I can focus on one at a time. This last week it was my cleaning routines and supplies. The week before it was finding more local ingredients and resources and recipes. Next week I plan to better organize my recycling system.

Baby steps mama!

Terri said... [Reply to comment]

Green washing is a big issue these days...I'm super vigilant about most of the products we use but it can be easy to fall into the 'green is the new black' trap. My Mother, knowing my preferences, kindly bought me an 'eco' baby wash for my babies. When I looked at the ingredients I didn't find anything different than the regular soaps (sls, fragrance etc...)It was crazy - what right do they have to call it eco and natural when clearly it is not. So I had to go and get a different one made by a company I respected. I also find the term eco friendly on a lot of toilet tissue these days when it's not recycled, probably bleached and wrapped up in plastic - arrgh!!!

Stephanie @ Confessions of a Trophy Wife said... [Reply to comment]

Green washing drives me crazy! It's frustrating because if you're buying "green" chances are you're trying to make an effort to make the better choice, but these companies pray on us and to make the beeter choice you really have to be a savvy consumer sometimes. It shouldn't be that way.

To avoid green washing I try to use as many natural cleaning products as possible (i.e. vinegar, baking soda, tea tree oil). I also try to use things with a good reputation like Dr. Bronner's soap for example instead of choosing the "new cool thing" that I saw for the first time in a TV commercial trying to get me to buy it. And I also try to maintain some common sense as far as not getting sucked in to organic processed foods - it's still processed!

Unfortunately, I know that although I try to be as savvy and contientious as possible there are still chemicals I'd like to avoid sneaking into my house in unassuming packages. I was just reading an article the other day about hazardous chemicals being found in proucts claiming to be green. *sigh*

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