What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)