Greenwashing: When fake eco-consciousness makes you blue

Last weekend, my wife and I went to the Green Living Expo on Long Island. A two-day event, it was designed as a way for homeowners to learn about all the emerging green technologies that could help them develop a more environmentally-conscious, energy-conserving lifestyle. We got free tickets from my wife's boss, who runs a green engineering firm, wrangled a weekend invitation from my aunt and uncle, and got ready to experience the cutting edge of the green world.

Maybe we built it up too much.

Admittedly, there were some impressively green items on display. We learned about bamboo clothing (only $35 for a t-shirt!), solar-powered attic fans, bio-composters, and other cool technologies. We also got to see a nice variety of hippies, new-agers, and other assorted lunatics. As expected, there was a weedy-looking guy with a beard who was trying to sell his book about hiking the Appalachian trail, various people hawking crystals, and more than a few natural-remedy folks. While I'll acknowledge that natural remedies are less polluting and invasive than traditional medicine, I have yet to figure out how aligning my chakrahs will help me use less energy and reduce my carbon footprint. To put it mildly, the snake-oil quotient was pretty high.

Even more disturbing than the huckster hippies, we were dismayed to discover that many of the exhibitors were adept at the art of "greenwashing," in which companies claim to be green in order to capture an ecologically-conscious market segment. While a great lesson in showmanship, this left us more than a little depressed. We saw representatives from a credit union on Long Island, a sunroom builder, a mainstream investment firm, radio stations, movie theaters, and various other companies that had absolutely nothing to do with the environment. Worse yet, some of the companies that claimed to be ecologically conscious were actually major polluters. There were mainstream paint companies that offered a small line of very expensive "green" paints, cosmetic companies that were hawking petroleum-based eyeliners, the SmartCar (which only gets 25mpg in the city, 33 on the highway), and several other concerns that were trying to cash in on the green buck without actually doing anything for the environment.

I don't blame the Green Living Expo for the fake greenies among its exhibitors; after all, they needed to fill their arena. Besides, New York City's Green Expo was even worse. My favorite was the company that claimed to offer "green" private jets, but the greenwashers were out in force, pushing everything from cell-healing green drinks to eco-luxury vodka. If I could have found a recycled barf bag, we would have been in business, but I was out of luck and had to hold it in.

According to BearingPoint, 71% of American firms are trying to sell consumers on the environmental friendliness of their products. It's not hard to understand why everybody's hopping on the green bandwagon; after all, not only does ecological awareness appeal to consumers, but it also translates into big bucks. I like to call this the "Whole Foods Effect": by claiming that their products are eco-friendly, retailers are able to automatically add a significant percentage onto their prices.

My favorite fake greenie is Mattel. Could someone tell me how, exactly, a doll that is produced from petroleum-derived compounds and emits hazardous volatile organic compounds can possibly be positioned as a "green" product? Yet, Mattel is somehow trying to convince consumers that its "Green Barbie" is improving the planet simply because its accessories are made from salvaged scraps of fabric! Does this mean that putting patchwork seatcovers on a Hummer makes it environmentally responsible? If I wrap my aerosol cans in recycled newspapers, will I somehow save the ozone? How about if I burn Styrofoam in a recycled oil drum?

As eco-consciousness becomes a greater market force, there are bound to be more and more examples of greenwashing. While some companies, like Dr. Bronner's soaps, have begun questioning the green claims of their competitors in court, the sad truth is that "green" is a slippery term. Unlike "organic," which has a carefully-regulated legal definition, companies can claim to be green or "eco-friendly" with minimal justification. Some analysts have argued that, as more and more polluters exploit this trend, "green fatigue" will begin to set in. Consumers will become more and more wary of "green" claims, transforming ecological awareness from an important lifestyle choice into an exhausted marketing fad.

Personally, I'm blaming it all on Barbie. I bet her Malibu dreamhouse doesn't even have a solar panel. Poser.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He is not, however, a hippie, as he both bathes regularly and eats meat. With vigor.
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