In recent years, it’s become something of a trend for consumers to buy the “greener” choice. These days, there are a whole lot of products labeled “biodegradable” and “environmentally-friendly”. Everyone from automobile companies to clothing companies to fashion designers to junk food companies (think Sun Chips) have jumped on board the metaphorical greenmobile (obviously, it’s an electric car. Or maybe a hydrogen-burning mobile?). After all, green is the new black.
And not only is green trendy, it generates profits. Take a look at this video of Walmart Corporate Affairs EVP Leslie Dach talking about how going green was good for their bottom line. Because they were able to work with their manufacturers to save during the production stage, they subsequently able to pass on some of those savings to Walmart customers. They’re not alone; many other companies, like Unilever, have discovered the same thing. This begs the question why green products are, in many cases, more expensive than their normal product evil twins, but that’s an issue for another blog post.
Going green may be good and well for the companies involved, but this now creates a bit of a dilemma for your average consumer: How are we to navigate through the mountains of supposedly “green” products to find the truly good? The answer to this question seemed to be rating systems. After all, cars have safety ratings, books and papers get reviewed, so it seemed almost natural to create some sort of rating system for products and how green they are; but be careful what you wish for because you may be bombarded with it.
Instead of two or three simple rating systems we got a mountain. Some, like EnergyStar or Ecologo, are government-backed rating programs; others, like GoodGuide, were started by concerned private citizens. They rate just about everything, from electronics to makeup products to toilet paper, either as a certification that a product is “green” or a numerical rating generally from 1 to 10. “Well ok,” you say, “so we got a little more than we bargained for. It’s just a little more information to sort through right?” Surprisingly, no. EnergyStar only rates electronics and household appliances, which is great when you want to get a new washing machine but not when you’re wondering if those pants you just threw in are sustainable. Ecologo, while comprehensive, enjoys categorizing a little too much (what’s an enzymatic cleaner?) and it’s more likely than not that your favourite conditioner didn’t make the cut – there’s only 6 bottles from 2 brands listed. Plus, I could only recognize a handful of brands while scrolling down their manufacturers list. GoodGuide, due to its numerical rating system, can serve as a warning system against eco-unfriendly products too, but a private ranking system can only cover so many products (they have rated around roughly 160,000 products). So, even though these three are very prominent (and pretty big) ranking systems, it was rather hard to find overlaps to check ranking consistency. It would be nice if someone could just make an all-inclusive green ranking list, the good, the bad, and the downright dirty.
Well, Walmart apparently heard the call. In July of 2009, Walmart announced a green rating program initiative for its stores. The program was to be an extensive research and rating program, covering any and all products it has on its shelves (which is pretty much everything). The plan was to go to all the companies Walmart sold products from, ask them for their production emission numbers for their products (assuming they would just give it to them), and rank the products based on the emission numbers.They would then display the rankings on its shelves to inform consumers about whether or not they were making a “green” choice. It is now 2012 and there has been no sign of this initiative. Why? Mainly because Walmart was a little too ambitious in creating this program. As CNN’s Paul Keegan explains, the problem lies within the fact that a product will still have an impact on the environment, no matter how little. Determining how these different emissions should be weighted is more than just a little tricky. Should carbon emissions (found in the highest concentrations in the atmosphere) be weighted more heavily than methane? Or is perhaps methane gas emissions worse because it’s smelly (and more powerful than CO2)? Or should energy use trump all?
The entire rating trend also brings up another issue in the form of bad publicity for the companies that are unfortunately labelled as not “green”. Who would offer up their numbers on emissions if they knew they were going to be hit with an environmental scarlet letter? Certainly not Apple, which is why they attempted to quietly withdrew themselves from the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool) product registry when they released the new Macbook Pro, which comes with glued in batteries unsuitable for recycling. However, due to pressure from their customers and environmental groups, they’ve re-added themselves back to the registry. Now the problem is between Greenpeace and the EPEAT. When Apple rejoined the EPEAT, the new Macbook Pro was declared “green”, despite the battery problem. Greenpeace is now accusing the EPEAT of “bending the rules” for the Macbook and “setting a dangerous trend” for other green consumer product rating systems.
In essence, the problem is that with the reward of a label of being “green” (and subsequently consumers’ approval) comes the incentive to cheat. Like how brownies drastically affected our class fishing industry, just about every industry that exists right now is being affected by the green movement. For them, they don’t win brownies; they win in money, the greatest incentive for corporations to cheat. Greenwashed products (false claims of being environmentally-friendly) have become alarmingly common; for instance this study by CBC’s Marketplace showed how even some of our favourite household products are greenwashed. On GoodGuide, all the Dawn products listed have an environmental rating of 6.2, which is in the good range, despite the fact that Marketplace claims one of its ingredients is under heavy attack by environmental groups who want it banned. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Dawn’s environmental track record on GoodGuide is actually far from golden, but if a consumer wasn’t terribly concerned about the ranking details, they would have had the green light from a trustworthy ranking system.
At the end of the day, I do sincerely believe that the rating systems were a step in the right direction. Though there are many things wrong with the ranking systems, at least they created some more incentive for companies to be green. However, I don’t think these ranking systems are the best answer to getting companies to be more green. While I would love to suggest strict government regulation and heavy legal penalties to be passed to eliminate “greenwashing”, I don’t think it’s a very realistic solution. The conclusion that I’ve come to is perhaps the most troublesome of all; I think the responsibility is on consumers to check on the companies and how they’re doing. I don’t just mean checking rating systems, though it is a good first step. I think we should keep our eyes and ears open and demand greener and greener products until emissions can reach 0 (or as close to it as we can get). After all, consumers hold the biggest sway over large corporations. If we don’t buy their products, they have no raison d’etre. It may sound impossible, but as the saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”; and we better have a will, because our planet depends on it.