Friday, April 13, 2012

Seeing Through Greenwash


(Extracted and edited from

You buy imported biodegradable detergents and garbage bags, and organic t-shirts and vegetables. But are your purchases really helping to reduce damage to the environment?

Expensive products that are marketed as eco-friendly may help us to assuage our guilt, while drawing our attention away from the more pressing issues.

Some purportedly eco-friendly actions and products can be useful, but only when used as part of a wider environmentally-aware lifestyle. Most worrying of all, some things marketed as sustainable can have negative side effects for the environment. This is what is known as "greenwashing".

Here are some products and services that are not as earth-friendly as they claim to be:


Carbon credits may seem like a simple way of negating environmental damage without making significant changes to your lifestyle.

Hop on a flight from the U.S. to Europe and you can pay a carbon offsetting company a fee to mop up your greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, by planting some trees or installing solar panels in a developing country.

But can we really continue to take exotic holidays and still have a green conscience? Many sustainability experts think not.

"Carbon offsetting is a con. It encourages businesses and individuals to carry on polluting when we urgently need to reduce our carbon emissions," said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth U.K.

Furthermore, it isn't clear that all carbon credit schemes really do lower greenhouse gas emissions, experts say.

For example, planting fast-growing pine trees on grassland will lock up carbon in the tree, but may also disrupt the soil and release large amounts of carbon stored in the grassland.

"The greenest thing holidaymakers can do is choose a location that is closer to home, that can be reached by bus or by train," Friends of the Earth's Atkins said. "Governments must ensure rail is a fast, convenient, and affordable alternative to flying."


Is it time to trade in the gas-guzzler for a more fuel-efficient model?

When it comes to cars, the fuel efficiency needs to weighed against the "embodied energy," or the energy used in making the car, experts say.

That means taking into account how much energy was used to refine the iron ore to make the steel, then the fuel used to ship the steel to the car factory, and finally the energy used to assemble the car and transport it to the showroom.

These calculations reveal that buying a new car might be beneficial for the environment, but that it depends on the fuel consumption of your existing car and what you intend to replace it with.

"If you replace your SUV with a Toyota Prius, it is worth it, but if your old car is a Morris Minor and you replace it with a Range Rover, it is not worth it," said Robert Vale, an architect at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Changing your driving habits can really help to save fuel. "Driving smoothly, getting rid of unnecessary weight, and keeping tires inflated can cut emissions by up to 30 percent," said Friends of the Earth's Atkins.

"But the best way to cut emissions from cars is to use them less."


The supermarket dilemma: organic green beans from Kenya, or ordinary green beans grown just down the road?

From an environmental perspective, organic farming is usually considered the better option, experts say. It's less intensive and relies on ecological processes rather than synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

But some experts argue that those benefits can be outweighed by the energy used to fly food to the supermarket.

Alex Randall is a a sustainability expert from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, U.K. "We need to look at everything we eat and try to replace high environmental-impact foods with lower ones," Randall said. "So avoiding foods that have travelled a long way, or are out of season, is a good place to start."

But this doesn't mean you have to avoid all foods from afar. Foods that have a longer shelf life, such as cereals and wine, can be transported by ship rather than air.

"Shipping is better for the environment than air-freighting, but if you can, local products are the best of all," said Randall.

"For the greenest meal, shoppers should look for local organic produce direct from farmers and [neighborhood] markets," said Friends of the Earth's Atkins.

"Avoiding supermarkets cuts out the middleman and helps to ensure farmers get a fair price for the produce they sell."


many cities, and even some countries, are phasing out or taxing plastic bags. Ireland introduced its plastic bag tax in 2002, charging 15 Euro cents (22 U.S. cents) on each bag.

In 2007 San Francisco became the first U.S. city to introduce a plastic-bag ban, and now Seattle is considering following suit.

But there are downsides to getting rid of plastic bags. Plastic-bag manufacturers claim that there has been a huge spike in sales of bin liners and garbage bags, since people no longer have the free ones from the grocery stores.

Paper bags are also increasing in popularity. Some studies suggest that paper bags require more energy to manufacture and release more greenhouse gases when degrading than plastic bags. Friends of the Earth's Atkins suggests that we should concentrate more on what goes into the bag than what the bag is made of.

"Plastic bags are only a tiny part of the problem. To avoid sending materials to landfill or to be incinerated — which is a polluting and expensive process — we should avoid producing waste in the first place by buying only what is necessary, and reusing and mending our possessions."

Making your own canvas or cloth shopping bags, reusing and washing your cloth shopping bags, reusing existing plastic bags for garbage and avoiding paper bags as well as unnecessary plastic bags are good steps towards reducing and ultimately phasing out plastic bag usage without causing other harm to the environment.

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