Green Washing

Green Eggs and Ham

Products (and claims of their “green” attributes) may not always be what they “appear” on the surface. Greenpeace notes that “These days, green is the new black.” (with a recognition here, that some might dispute that claim, since Netflix claims that “orange” is – honestly, I prefer “green” thank you !!!) According to Earth911 – “Greenwashing is a term used for companies that claim to be — but in reality are not — acting in an environmentally responsible way. It was first used in print by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in reference to hotels that encouraged guests to reuse towels to benefit the Earth but that in turn didn’t recycle if it didn’t save money.”

Greenpeace traces the term to – “around 1990 when some of America’s worst polluters (including DuPont, Chevron, Bechtel, the American Nuclear Society, and the Society of Plastics Industry) tried to pass themselves off as eco-friendly at a trade fair taking place in Washington, DC.” It is interesting to note, that if that was the “same” EPA trade fair our company was invited to, and did attend, we didn’t have a clue of any ulterior purposes behind that. The companies we came in contact with were small like us and by bootstrap efforts, trying to do a good thing for the environment by way of pursuing their business interests. Maybe we were put into different rooms ?, or perhaps we were just that “new” at it ourselves.

Good Bye Greenwash UL Soap

UL Environmental is a division of Underwriters Laboratories that is offering “independent green claims validation”. They made quite a splash at Neocon in 2010 by giving out the bars of soap in the photo above.

BuildingProductMarketing.com had some interesting observations about these bars of soap. They noted that “the slogan and the soap create a strong and memorable image that explains the benefit of the company’s services”. The author of that article notes that, “they missed valuable opportunities to ‘walk the talk’:
•The packaging does not list products ingredients, place of manufacturer, or whether sustainable paper and printing were used — important information that can help a consumer assess the environmental impact of the product.
•More, the fragrance in the soap, while pleasant enough, could irritate show attendees with chemical sensitivities, and does not support environmental goals for indoor air quality.”

Penny Bonda, in Interior Design’s Neocon publication for that year, noted – “Remember, as you engage with showroom personnel, to ask the right questions: Where did this product come from? What is it made of? How is it made? How is it maintained? How does it affect the well-being of the building occupants? How much energy does it use? How do I know you’re telling me the truth? Knowing whom to trust in this era of greenwash is a huge challenge, sorting out the science is difficult for those not schooled in technical matters.”

Michael Chusid, in that BuildingProductMarketing.com article, did note that – “On the positive side, the soap is one piece of trade show swag that I will probably use, unlike the plastic gizmos that will sit on my desk for a week and then wind up in a recycling bin or trash can.” Anyone who has ever walked a trade show “understands”.

Honest environmental claims

But seriously . . . knowing “who” to trust is VERY important. Since finding our “business calling”, we have been seeking to walk the walk, that our talk indicates (not only as a business, but in our personal lives as well, respecting the movement deeply). Admittedly, it is a process; and we are constantly learning new or better ways in which to live and regarding how we produce our product, that may be only a tiny step “better”, than the alternatives. We don’t claim to be the end all and be all for “saving the Earth”. I don’t think every company with any acknowledged environmental “edge” is trying to cheat the system or deceive their customers, many are doing the best that they can, to be a good “alternative” choice. But with some companies and regarding some claims, the activity is not so innocent nor benign.

Greenpeace points out that “Sometimes, not even the intentions are genuine. Some companies, when forced by legislation or a court decision to improve their environmental track record, promote the resulting changes as if they had taken the step voluntarily. And at the same time that many corporations are touting their new green image (and their CEOs are giving lectures on corporate ecological ethics), their lobbyists are working night and day in Washington to gut environmental protections.”

Unfortunately, while “green” certifications may be useful in determining the truth of some claims, the cynic in me also wonders if they can’t also be “bought”. I would certainly hope not. Our firm has enough skepticism about the plethora of firms claiming to offer “certification at a price”, that we don’t want good money chasing after a bad practice. As the efforts to be more environmental improve within the business world, maybe certain confirmations will become truly “trusted” over time and be worth exploring. For the time being, we stand simply on our integrity, born of a long history as genuinely, environmentally-concerned citizens and business owners.

HDPE bottle bales

An aspect of “green washing” that we run into with our competitors comes down to the difference between “post-industrial” and “post-consumer”, and why it matters at all. The truth is – industry produces a larger volume of waste than any individual – so, on an “entity” basis, it is admittedly, a “bigger” problem. However, the federal government, LEED requirements and die-hard environmentalists often focus, as does our own business due to our own environmental hearts, on post-consumer because in that realm, we are talking about changing a whole lotta behaviors, in a large mass of people. The challenge is greater; and individuals lack the economic and financial motivations that often move industry in a more “environmentally friendly” direction.

It is important to find out – “Does the manufacturer truly know the actual source of their feedstocks ?” If the source of a manufacturer’s “recycled content” comes from a broker, it’s anyone’s guess. We used to be the only company offering “recycled content” restroom partitions, that just happened to be 100% post-consumer sourced in their origin. Now, we find we have “competition”. In our own investigations, we doubt that the claims accomplish what the intention in using “recycled content” is meant to achieve. We work closely with a company whose entire business focus is taking post-consumer HDPE bottles and sorting, washing, grinding or otherwise processing them into a useful form. In our earliest days, we used to do this baseline processing directly our selves; but eventually, we lacked adequate equipment resources to meet the rapidly growing demand to produce more volume. At that point, we came in contact with respected experts, in that field.

The issue of “greenwashing” is much larger than my blog space can explore at one sitting; but we have experienced some competition that seeks to deceive our potential customers that their “recycled content” has equal value to our own. So far, as we investigate such claims, we don’t see any truth in that possibility. Dealing with post-consumer feedstock is a complex matter that most companies really don’t want to get involved in. We have a quarter century of experience at making sure our post-consumer content has enough quality, to simply stand on it’s own useful merits as a material choice – before we even begin to point out, that it also is a more environmentally-sound choice for its utilization of existing waste.

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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