The Green Consumer
By Rachel Wall
How skeptical should we be of the Eco-friendly claims we find on product packaging? Our instinct may be to think twice about the seemingly positive health and financial claims we find ourselves surrounded by, but are our consumer decisions less skeptical when confronted by “green” product advertising? Environmentally conscious declarations bombard us daily through various mediums for the purpose of capitalist or political gain.
That’s not to say that there aren’t opportunists on the other side who prey upon our desires to be better citizens environmentally or lead a healthier lifestyle. It can be very time consuming to research the practices of companies and individuals who claim to have the best interest of the environment at heart.
Many of these larger companies will run multimillion dollar campaigns to inflate minor Eco-friendly practices in an effort to gain the attention of your wallet. This type of campaigning is known as “greenwashing” and there has been a significant increase of it over the past decade. Odds are everyone has fallen victim to it at least once in their lives. The truth is some of those companies have been mandated to make those changes because of environmental legislation. The best example of this would be to look at factories and power plants and consider the piece of federal legislation known as the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act sets national ambient air quality standards for common air pollutants, known as “criteria pollutants” related to: ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. These toxic air pollutants are connected to cancer, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer and smog. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases were to be included in the definition of air pollutants since they are recognized to be problematic in the battle against climate change. The stationary sources that fall under this mandate are subject to permitting and required to apply the best available control technology, which in most cases are scrubbers and filters that trap the pollutant before its spewed out a smokestack. Now, one of these manufacturers or energy companies that fall under this may use this as an advertising opportunity to herald their forced environmentally friendly practices as voluntary blessings raining down upon the earth (As a side note about the energy industry and greenwashing, there is no such thing as “clean coal”).
At the smaller scale of greenwashing lie products that consumers may not think too much about because the box has words like “natural”, “biodegradable”, “non-toxic”, “organic” and “Eco-friendly”. A lot of products that plaster these terms across their packaging may only be referring to a percentage of the product. It’s important to remember that anything can be toxic at the right dose and that claim is usually only aimed at human health, and not the waste stream or the effects of production. “Biodegradable” just means that a product will break down over a period of time, which could be a year, hundreds of years or even thousands of years. Since we landfill waste, that time period is likely more on the higher end of that range since oxygen, light and bacterial activity are required in the breakdown process. However, the term “compostable” actually has a more narrow definition and means that the “material must break down into environmentally benign parts within a specifically limited time frame”. Compostable materials eventually turn into a nutrient-rich material but are not designed to degrade in landfills. If your city has a composting program, then dispose of those products following their guidelines of what’s acceptable to throw in the compost bins.
So how do we make responsible consumer decisions in a sea of greenwashing? We must consider all aspects of the production, use, lifespan, and disposal of the product. The factory manufacturing the product has their own waste stream, which can include waste water, chemicals, air pollutants and energy use. The consumer through use of the product has to dispose of packaging or spent materials. The disposal of the product requires energy and is likely taken to a landfill where the packaging and spent material will sit and possibly leach into the environment. One of the best decisions an environmentally concerned consumer can make is not to buy single use products and consider the lifecycle of the product. Don’t be duped into a false sense of stewardship by declarations printed on packaging. Do a little research and decide for yourself by voting with your dollars to drive the market down a more environmentally responsible road.