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Greenwashed: Good for the Earth or the Bottom Line?

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Whenever I buy free range eggs, I have an image of contented chickens wobbling about and clucking in the sun. Assured that these chickens lead a good life, and I am getting more nutrients because of their varied diet and exposure to the great outdoors, I give myself a mental high-five for shelling out the extra sixty or so cents.


Come to find out that when it comes to eggs, the “free range” label doesn’t guarantee anything. Unlike chickens raised for consumption, the conditions of egg-layers are unregulated. There isn’t even a standard definition of what free range means for eggs. The only assurance a buyer has is the company’s word. The same is true for all other livestock. (Even the free range certification for poultry only verifies that the bird spent at least five minutes a day in the open air.)


Differentiating between when you’re doing the right thing or just being sold a bill of green goods is a difficult quandary for consumers. As green has gone mainstream, marketing products by promising kindness to the earth, animals, and consumer health has become pervasive: Cruelty-free, ecosafe, environmentally-friendly, and recyclable are a handful of the common declarations found on product packaging—none of which are verified by an independent agency or clearly defined. As soon as the modern environmental movement emerged in the 1960s, companies realized that going green—or at least pretending to—would boost profits. In 1969, public utilities spent more than $300 million in advertising, much of it hyping their campaign to reduce pollution, eight times as much as they invested in anti-pollution research, according to Corpwatch.org.


Green or Just a Green Sheen?
Since then, greenwashing—investing more in showcasing an environmentally-friendly image than on actual green practices—has become pervasive. A 2007 study by environmental marketing company TerraChoice found that of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed, 99 percent made misleading green claims. Examples included touting aerosols such as hairspray as “CFC free” even though ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons have been banned since 1996 and labeling electronic products containing hazardous materials as “energy efficient.”


The following are a handful of greenwashing companies and terminology that I found particularly irksome.


Hybrid SUVs
If they are big and heavy, they still guzzle, even hybrids. Small, conventional cars such as the Honda Civic use 25 percent less energy than the hybrid Chevy Tahoe. GM, which has tried to burnish its green image with a hybrid line, launched its “Gas Friendly to Gas Free” campaign while trying to derail Congress’ attempt to increase fuel economy standards, spending $14.56 million in campaign contributions in 2007, according to GreenPeace. For consumers who need SUVs and trucks, hybrids are better than the standard models, but the smaller and lighter, the better.


Monsanto
Known best for its herbicide Roundup and the genetically-engineered Roundup Ready crops resistant to it, Monsanto rivals big oil’s record on human rights and environmental abuses. Yet, Monsanto markets itself as virtuous and green. A photo of a windmill figures prominently in the Web site’s sustainable agriculture section. Meanwhile, Monsanto has campaigned against organic agriculture, donating to sympathetic candidates and an anti-organic lobbying group. It has sued small farmers for stealing their patented Roundup Ready crops even though the farmers have insisted that their fields were contaminated by crosspollination with nearby farms. It is also the number one producer of recombinant bovine growth hormone given to cows to stimulate milk production. The company has lobbied Congress and sued dairies to limit prevent them from labeling their products as rBGH free. Monsanto has said that the claim gives consumers a false sense that the hormone is dangerous.


Clean Coal
Clean coal is a paradox. Coal is dirty and no amount of technology will eliminate its green house gas emissions. The campaign to portray clean coal as a solution to global warming is misleading, but there is a caveat. It is a temporary fix to alleviate the problem and it shouldn’t be ignored. The process captures much of the carbon dioxide released from coal, storing it in depleted oil and gas reservoirs. The gases will remain trapped for over 300 years, according to the Pew Center. While we wean ourselves off coal, which generates 50 percent of the electricity the United States uses, clean coal is an important stopgap measure.


Big Oil
The oil companies have spent lavishly to recast themselves as friends to the environment. The ads coat billboards and buses, span multiple pages in newspapers, and are regularly aired on television and radio new shows. Chevron’s “Human Energy” spots are regularly advertised on the McNeil Lehrer News Hour. Yet, in the past fifteen years, the top five oil companies have spent just $5 billion on alternative energy. During the same time period, Royal Dutch Shell alone spent $80 billion on oil and gas projects. Shell recently announced it would no longer invest in renewable energy such as wind, solar, and hydrogen despite its ongoing “Clear the Air Campaign.” For the last nine years, British Petroleum (BP) has advertised that is moving “beyond petroleum” even though it has been cutting its renewable program since 2007. Chevron has lobbied heavily for deepwater drilling in environmentally-sensitive areas. Oil and gas companies spent $1.3 million to put John McCain into office—Drill, baby, drill—three times the amount they donated to Barack Obama.


Biofuel
Just because it’s not made from petroleum doesn’t mean it’s good for global warming. Biofuels are heralded as a way to get us off foreign oil, but they aren’t exactly clean. According to the journal Science, “corn-based ethanol … nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over thirty years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” The journal adds that switch grass, which has been suggested as a less energy-intensive alternative, isn’t—“if grown on U.S. corn lands, they increase emissions by 50 percent.” Although biofuels offer huge potential, a lot still needs to be figured out for them to be truly “green.”


Biodynamic Wines
Often hailed as a practice that’s beyond organic, biodynamic wines appeal to the green crowd. To be sure, the wines are free of pesticides and herbicides, but biodynamic farming is more voodoo than environmental science. It involves vineyard practices that align with the lunar cycle to maintain the balance of opposing forces. As part of the process, fresh cow skulls are filled with finely ground oak bark and placed in shallow holes or rain buckets through the fall and winter. The resulting mulch is said to improve the plant’s immune system and promote healing. Although biodynamic winemakers clearly believe in what they do, they largely conceal the (non-vegan) details that consumers may find unpalatable.


Now that green is touted as the answer to the current economic slump, fear of global warming is mounting, and consumers are seeking goods that don’t damage the earth or their bodies, a green image is worth more than ever before. And greenwashing is only likely to increase with the stakes. Spotting deceptive advertising can be difficult and researching environmental claims for every product is daunting. Keeping up with the news is one of the best ways to know what large companies are giving the environment more than lip service. Enviromedia offers some tips on deciphering green fact from fiction and a forum for consumers to post and rate the veracity of green ads. Consumer Reports Greener Choices also gives explanations on what labels on common products such as “all natural” and “vegan” mean and if they are trustworthy. And perhaps the “greenest” choice of all is to simply consume less stuff, regardless of whether it’s green or greenwashed.

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