issue 203 - January 1990
Beware the green con
The path of green consumerism is paved with good intentions - but it
is also littered with pitfalls. Juliet Kellner explains how to tread safely.
Today is Green Shopping Day. This is the day that I, the consumer, am being asked to 'use my buying power as a vote for the planet'. It is a catchy slogan. But can I really improve my relationship with the earth by going shopping?
The problem is that whatever I consume greenly or ungreenly constitutes a bite out of the earth's resources. And as a member of the Western world, I currently take very large bites. The average Westerner uses over 260 lbs of paper every year, for example - and as a voracious reader and copious writer, I probably use much more.
Not only do I consume vast amounts of raw materials - I am also a high-level polluter. In the US the average consumer creates nine lbs of hazardous waste every day and gives little indication of slowing down. The extent of our devastation is changing the chemistry of the planet on a scale that it would take nature hundreds of millions of years to equal.
This harsh reality means that we must do everything possible to limit our impact on the earth. And green consumerism is a step in the right direction. The challenge is for consumers to control the movement so that we do not end up its victims. We can do this best by recognizing its pitfalls.
My daughter encountered one of these quite recently. Eager to be a good green, she spent her entire week's allowance on a giant aerosol spray because it announced itself as 'environment-friendly'. A few days later she discovered that although the can was CFC-free, it contained other gases contributing to the greenhouse effect. She had been hoodwinked into spending money on a product that she cannot, eco-soundly, use. The manufacturer profited from the sale of the can by exploiting her good will towards the planet. But the planet scarcely benefited at all.
My daughter had stumbled into Pitfall Number One for the Unwary Green Consumer - the 'Bit-Less-Bad' trap. The CEC-free aerosol is a bit less bad than one which spews out CECs - that's one step forward. But my daughter would willingly have advanced two steps and bought a non-aerosol product, had she been more honestly informed; the labelling on the can misled her.
An important task for the green consumer movement, therefore, is to make producers and retailers label their merchandise fully and honestly. The movement must also persuade governments to add their muscle to this reasonable demand; accurate labelling should become a statutory requirement.
Another example of the Bit-Less-Bad trap is unleaded fuel. This does not stop motorists damaging the environment but only stops them destroying it quite so violently. This one-step change is not enough. The real way to protect the earth is to stop motorists from being motorists - or at least to persuade them to use their cars only when absolutely necessary. And nowhere on the advertising hoardings aimed at would-be green motorists, do we see suggestions that we should stop buying cars.
The logic of big business is to promote consumption. So however green-tinted companies become they are unlikely to encourage people to consume less. And this gives the green consumer movement another role: to make shoppers stop before they buy to ask whether they need a product at all.
'We must consider not only the quality of the products we buy, but the quantity,' thunders Jonathon Porritt from Friends of the Earth in the UK. And unless the green consumer movement constantly reiterates this point, it lays itself open to being hijacked by industrialists who simply wish to look green enough to make naive shoppers purchase more of their wares.
The danger of this is very real. Close examination of apparently-green producers reveals Pitfall Number Two for the Green Consumer - the 'Green Image Game'. An article written for marketing executives entitled 'Selling to the greens? It's not so simple', urges industrialists to include a green benefit in the marketing of all products and services. For example, adding a little recycled paper to a package enables them to claim that the item is made of recycled materials and convey a sense of ecological responsibility. By making products sound as if they are good for the environment, manufacturers can 'attract extra sales from around a third of the population'.
So caveat emptor viridis; let the green buyer beware. You may have sacrificed the comfort of your ultra-thin toilet paper for what you think is the recycled stuff - but it is possible you are being conned. Producers could be exploiting your wish to be ecologically responsible - without taking such responsibility themselves.
Green consumers are easy targets. We are soft sells with dreams in our eyes and money in our pockets. We tell market researchers, hands on our hearts, that we are willing to pay 25 per cent more - no problem - for goods that are environment-friendly. The researchers listen and tell the producers who can hardly believe their luck - customers who say exactly what they want, and are willing to pay MORE! Small wonder that green products, halfway genuine or frankly fake, are filling up the supermarket shelves.
In fact, those with a green 'image' may be little better than the non-green products beside them. But why are non-green products on the same shelf in the first place? This is Pitfall Number Three - 'Niche-marketing', by which each product is targeted at a specific market.
The supermarket may hand our pretty green-and-white leaflets boasting its environmental concerns. But don't be fooled. The owners' real agenda is to boost the profits they get from customers, green and ungreen. Why else - when there are plenty of environment-friendly products now available - do supermarkets still stock non-green items? And why do manufacturers still make them? Freedom of choice is a feeble rejoinder when the issue is global suicide.
Buying green involves tackling this duplicity. Customers need to know whether the company as a whole has an ethical policy - from parent company down to subsidiaries. Otherwise we could find that we are 'voting with our purses for manufacturers that are anti-ecological - but indirectly so.
Heinz was recently caught like this. According to a Friends of the Earth bulletin, the company won a Green Manufacturer of the Year Award, and was on the point of signing a $114,000 sponsorship deal to support Green Shopping Day when it suddenly pulled out. It had apparently been made aware of plans to alert green consumers to the slaughter of dolphins by Starkis - one of its subsidiaries. The withdrawal showed how scared companies are of the negative publicity they might receive if they do not clean up their acts right down the line.
Environmental destruction can occur at many points in the life of a product, which leads us to Pitfall Number Four - the 'Cradle-to-Grave Trap'. A friend was recently pushed into this when he bought a CFC-free fridge. He knew he had acquired an object which emitted other noxious gases - Pitfall Number One - but that wasn't all. He had no way of knowing the quantity of valuable raw materials and energy that had been consumed in the fridge's manufacture. Nor was he told whether the manufacturing process had been polluting or not. Nor did he know if the fridge had been manufactured to last or to become obsolete quickly; nor whether it consumed more or less electricity to run than other models; nor whether, when it was defunct, its parts could or would be recycled.
Many of us tumble into this trap. Yesterday I bought a juicer to feed my family in a healthier, more environmentally-friendly way - less red meat, more vegetables and more fruit - but I completely forgot to raise any of the above questions. Had I remembered, who would I have asked? The harassed sales assistant wouldn't have known the answers. She would have written me off as a time-wasting nut.
We should insist that governments compel industrialists to give us this information as of right. We need to know exactly what damage a product is doing to the environment - from the mining of its raw materials to the end of its life. We have already forced manufacturers to acknowledge some of our 'green' demands. But we can't stop here. If we do we'll be like the man in the cartoon who fell off the Empire State Building and shouted just before he hit the ground 'I'm doing great so far'.
Green consumers have strength and it lies in our growing numbers and our deep personal conviction that we want a planet fit for our children. Producers need us to buy their goods. That gives us power. We must insist on products which do not harm the environment. After all, the future depends on it.
Juliet Kellner is a writer based in London.
· Before you buy, ask if you really need a product, and if you do, choose one which will do least harm to the environment.
· Join a consumers group and lobby for government legislation to make manufacturers label their products fully and accurately. The labels should say exactly what a product contains. They should also inform shoppers as to the product's environmental friendliness from cradle to grave - evaluated according to standardized criteria. But remember that no label will ever tell you about a company's overall ethical policies.
· Take heart: the green consumer movement has made a significant dent in manufacturing practices over a very short time. You can help it do more by encouraging your friends and family to join.
The news swept through the Canadian environmental movement last year like a toxic blast: Pollution Probe, Canada's oldest publicly endorsed a line of 'green' products created by the country's largest supermarket chain, Loblaws. In return for giving Loblaws its official seal of approval, Probe was to receive a royalty on sales.
Worse still: Probe's erudite and respected Executive Director, Colin Isaacs, had also agreed to play environmental salesperson for Loblaws. Canadians long used to seeing environmental campaigners arguing with corporate polluters were stunned to turn on their TV sets and see Isaacs rubbing shoulders with Loblaws' gnome-like marketing genius, David Nichols. Surrounded by a small mountain of 'green' diapers - made with non-chlorine bleached paper and photo-sensitive plastic - lsaacs told viewers, 'If you must use disposable diapers, then use this one'.
The Pollution Probe staff quit for several reasons. Gord Perks, then in charge of Waste Management at Probe, claims, 'Staff were not consulted. The decision to endorse Loblaws' "green" products was made by Isaacs and a few board members. Even today a small group makes most of the decisions.'
Many staff were embarrassed by the way the decision had been taken. 'I literally found out about our endorsement of used motor-oil from someone I was phoning to find out whether the stuff was OK,' says the group's Education Programme Co-ordinator at the time, Dave Bruer. 'When we asked to see test results so we could recommend the products with some confidence we were told that the data was confidential, between Colin Isaacs and Loblaws.' Probe's Information Officer at the time, Vanessa Alexander, felt completely compromised by the Loblaws' deal. 'In my view disposable products are not green,' she says. 'I could not in good conscience tell people to buy disposable diapers.'
Staff also felt great unease about a major environment group cozying up to big business; a significant minority of Probe's employees at the time were opposed to promoting products from any corporation. 'Credibility is the environment movement's most important asset,' explains activist and lawyer Steven Shrybman of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). 'Our opinion isn't worth anything if people think it is influenced by self-interest.
From Loblaws' point of view the deal was a bargain. The company was able to display Probe's endorsement prominently in advertising and on the products themselves. In return, Pollution Probe was to receive a royalty on sales - up to $75,000 maximum during the first year of the agreement. The company actually sold five million dollars worth of 'green' products in Ontario alone during the first month. Today Loblaws makes about half a million dollars a week on its 20 or so 'green' products - and sales are increasing.
The company's spokesman, Paddy Carson - a verbose Irishman with an impressive lay command of environmental issues - ways that since the row over Probe's involvement, Loblaws has been deluged with letters of support. 'The criticism didn't do anything but boost sales,' he admits.
The key player in Probe's decision to promote 'green' products is Colin Isaacs. He saw the Loblaws link as a chance to use 'consumer power' to make quick progress on environmental issues. Like most activists, Isaac is fed up with the sloth-like pace with which governments are taking on environmental concerns. 'After a while you feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall,' he says. 'The problems are tremendous and time is short; we can't afford to wait while politicians figure out what to do.'
According to Isaacs the endorsement strategy has already begun to pay off. He cites the proliferation of non-chlorine bleached paper products as a good example. Both environmentalists and public health groups have long been worried about toxic discharges from paper mills using chlorine bleach.
Environmental groups have been lobbying for years about the issue. But neither government nor industry have shown much interest. Now consumer pressure is forcing pulp and paper companies in Western Canada to think about reducing or eliminating the chlorine bleach part of the pulp process. Brisk sales of Loblaws' non-chlorine bleach diapers and sanitary napkins have proven that eco-sensitive consumers will switch their buying habits in favour of the environment.
Even Isaac's harshest critics agree with his basic analysis: public concern over the environment should be used to put pressure on manufacturers through the marketplace.
But the real danger is that 'buying green' will be seen as the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis. Consumers, finally satisfied that they can 'do something', may seek no further than their shopping trolleys to help the planet.
But 'green products' on their own don't really touch the heart of the problem: at issue is the ideology of consumerism that pervades party politics of left, right and centre. 'It's over-consumption that got us into this mess in the first place', says Julia Langer.
'Over consumption' is a key concern for Colin Isaacs too. But he argues that Canadians have one of the most consumer-orientated societies on earth. 'We know we have to reduce consumption but we're going to get change more quickly if we do it step-by-step. We're a nation of shoppers so let's use that shopping habit to achieve something right now.'
Wayne Ellwood is a Canadian co-editor of the NI.