Before we go any further, I don’t mean to make light of something as serious as AIDS. This was a term I heard a very bright young entrepreneur use at a conference and it rang true. There’s so much hype around ‘green’ that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. I know for sure that too much hype around anything puts people off and it could even kill the very thing in question. If you want an example, think of the dot-com bubble. What I want to focus on today is something that irks me tremendously – ‘Greenwash’. What is it? Well, it’s simple really. Think whitewash and all its connotations and you’d immediately understand that ‘Greenwash’ is the equivalent practice of giving a green sheen to something that really isn’t.
Why does it get my goat? Well for one because it is misleading and confuses people. It makes it so much more harder to make choices that are good for you, the society and the environment. For many corporates, it could be a good way to begin setting things right but it becomes a problem when the focus stops there and there’s more fluff than stuff. I agree with the ad from Greenpeace which reads “Clean up your ACT, not your image”.
There are several examples of how large, multi-national companies have indulged in greenwash. For now,let’s take a simple example of something that we probably use in daily life, in order to demonstrate how pervasive it has become. Examine the picture below:What kind of rubbish fact is that?! There are people who’d actually believe this is a better product because of this statement. If you’d only would peel off the layers, you’d realize a very gory story out here.
Foam/Polystyrene/ Extruded Polystyrene (EPS) (popularly but incorrectly called styrofoam – read about why it is incorrect here) is a kind of plastic material that is one of the most common packaging materials even for food and beverages. In places like London (read places in the ‘developed’ world), it is ubiquitous. (Think take-away meals, coffees/teas, yogurt cups or even parties at home/work). In places like India (read ‘developing’ world) the trend of using disposable cups and plates is slowly but surely catching on. This is a stealthy but deadly problem. Why?
- A Problematic Source – Well for starters, because it is manufactured from petroleum (you don’t need me to tell you more about this non-renewable resource)
- Difficult to Dispose of – The foam coffee cup you used today could be sitting in a landfill even 500 years from now because the chemicals and materials used to make it take an incredible amount of time to break down in the natural environment. Unlike what the statement in the picture implies, it is estimated that by volume, it occupies as much as thirty percent of landfills worldwide. This situation adds on to the problem of disposing foam. Recycling this material is not easy either because there are only a few recycling stations. In fact, this website says that many local recycling stations do not accept foam products since they are difficult to store due to their bulk. Ironically, the properties that make polystyrene so useful such as its light weight, low cost and durability are the very things that make it hard to be recycled. Given the light weight and consequently relatively large volume of EPS per unit of weight, the cost of transporting these products to a recycling plant makes it often economically infeasible to send polystyrene for recycling. Also, contaminated foam cannot be recycled. So foam used in food packaging would require cleaning before it can be recycled. Obviously, this adds to the cost of recycling and make this product even more impractical to recycle. Read more here.
- Impact on Human Health – Benzene, a known human carcinogen, is used in its production. Substances present in food products like lemon rind can corrode this material. Read this informative, yet humorous article in the New Scientist. No one seems to warn people of such dangers while they are dished out by the dozens.
- Impact on the Environment – Polystyrene does bio-degrade as you can see from the example above but takes almost forever. While even trace quantities can affect human health, environmental health is super easy to ignore until the problem explodes in our faces. Polystyrene foam and million kinds of other plastic objects are abundantly found in something euphemistically called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” when there is NOTHING great about this except to highlight human shortsightedness and apathy! There are varying estimates of how large this island is. Some say it is thrice the size of Spain and Portugal combined, some that it is twice the size of Mexico, some that it is bigger than continental US! To quibble over such details is to ignore the real problem – The world’s largest landfill is actually in the ocean – an entire island of human trash made largely from disposable stuff made of plastic and polystyrene foam. This stuff is wreaking havoc with marine ecosystems. Human beings overestimate nature’s ability to fight back believing that evolution will take care of it all. The only sad fact is that we conveniently forget that evolution took hundreds of millions of years and human induced change -barely a few decades. To understand just how devastating this is to the environment and eventually to us, take a look at the videos below:
Given how gory this story is, you can see how dangerous and shortsighted “greenwash” can be for the human race. This is but ONE example. There are millions of other examples of greenwash that are out there in our world. When presented with false information, it’s small wonder then that we have so many people who have become skeptical of the word ‘green’!
Since the focus of this blog is to move from inspiration to “inspiraction” (i.e. inspired action) here’s what can you can do about it:
How to detect greenwash:
Sourcewatch offers a few rules of thumb to detect greenwash:
- Follow the money trail
- Follow the membership trail
- Follow the paper trail
- Look for skeletons in the company’s closet
- Test for access to information
- Test for international consistency
- Check how they handle their critics
- Test for consistency over time
Read more about all these here.
How to stop greenwash:
Greenpeace offers interesting solutions on how to stop greenwash. Read more here. If we can get ourselves to care enough, we can intuitively find several ways of doing something about it such as taking action as consumers, contacting policy makers, pressing for legal action, or even just educating ourselves and 10 other people in our family and friends’ circle and asking them to in-turn do the same . Each one of us is called to action. NOW.