The Business of Green

I had the opportunity to see Felicity Barringer, the New York Times correspondent, speak on the "The Dangers of Environmental Parables" at University of Wyoming's Consumer Issues Conference. Barringer argued that simple parables, such as the greed-versus-good stories present in the seminal Silent Spring no longer capture the complex landscape of environmental issues presented today. She offered the example of the potential for wind power in the Alleghenies, which is opposed by an environmental NIMBY activist named Dan Boone who thinks that the broader environmental movement has perverse priorities. It's no longer a matter of cutting corners to save money, environmental battles now involve complex choices. Is clean power more or less important than saving a beautiful landscape, birds, and bats from wind turbines?

Barringer is probably right about most environmental battles. But some still fit the old parables. I would argue that the speeding Chinese poison train, which this week features the addition of melamine to consumer products, is an example of the old style greed-versus-good parable. Melamine is being added to these products in order to make them appear to be more nutritious. This is not an accident or some complex decision concerning risk tolerance.

Barringer also discussed how the future of the green movement will be tied to making a business case for environmentalism. I think there is a lot of truth to this too, but I remain skeptical of business attempts to sell us on "green" items. So many products advertised as green have dubious credibility, but there are good resources to help sort things out.

My favorite example of a "green" option is the reusable shopping bag. Ellen Gamerman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

It's manufactured in China, shipped thousands of miles overseas, made with plastic and could take years to decompose. It's also the hot "green" giveaway of the moment: the reusable shopping bag.

It's not all bad. Those reusable bags can save energy, if you reuse them. Otherwise, they take more resources to create, and to me, are another example of how we are manipulated into thinking that we are acting in a socially responsible manner. Back to Gamerman:

Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.


Some, such as the ones sold in Gristedes stores in New York that are printed with the slogan "I used to be a plastic bag," are misleading. Those bags are also made in China from nonwoven polypropylene and have no recycled content. Stanley Joffe, president of Earthwise Bag Co., the Commerce, Calif., company that designed the bags, says the slogan is meant to point out that the bag itself is reusable, taking the place of a disposable plastic bag.

And what's the business case for going green here?

[Stanford marketing professor Baba] Shiv...says that according to surveys done by his graduate students, many shoppers say they are less likely to carry a retailer's branded reusable bag into a competing store. "What these bags are doing is increasing loyalty to the store," he says.


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It gets even worse in the construction industry, where what was green yesterday, is reviled today. Living in Portland, OR, most of my competitors like to tout their "green" credentials, while pretty much operating business as usual. My favorite, was this company that hauls debris. i called them because my usual hauler was overwhelmed and hadn't gotten a third truck on the road yet.

The company I called, bragged about how they recycled eighty percent of the debris they hauled away. This turned out to be because they mostly haul yard debris and aggregate. So they send out a guy to bid the hauling (most haulers here will quote over the phone, so as not to waste fuel) and he shows up in a heavy duty, Ford F-350, that is absolutely spotless - obviously not used for hauling or anything one would need a truck for. I ask him how they go about sorting and recycling the debris they would take away and he explains that nothing on my job would actually get recycled - because it wasn't feasible. Mind, my normal hauler was all about recycling and managed to recycle everything I sent off with him, with the exception of some materials that had been contaminated by a particularly virulent mold.

My customers spend a lot of money to be environmentally conscious. My regular hauler is about forty percent more expensive than standard haulers in the area. But I know that he does what he advertises, I haven't gone with him on hauls, but I have sent a guy who works for me on occasion, with him a couple of times. This other company was even more expensive, but did nothing that any other hauler would do differently.

I have rather wondered about the nifty new grocery bags. My family is rather big on them, mainly because we use public trans and they hold up a lot better than paper/plastic. At the same time, I was told that they are even worse for decomp, than "traditional" plastic grocery bags.

When the feel-good reusable grocery tote first made it's appearance, I welcomed it's ergonomics, but remained deeply suspicious of any claimed *green* pedigree. I searched for country of origin labeling to no avail. My suspicion was that they were being containered in from China, and that the tug boat that towed them into the harbor blew my entire family's lifetime carbon footprint out it's smokestack in the process. When I found they were indeed made in China, I felt my suspicion was confirmed. Anybody have some big-picture data on just how *green* the conscience massaging reusable bag really is?

By Kerry Maxwell (not verified) on 27 Sep 2008 #permalink

"Finding a truly green bag is challenging."

This is a great example on unscientific thinking. The implication that *green* is some absolute binary yes or no ideal is silly. Everything requires resources to produce, and the anti-environmental argument "everything has a cost, so don't bother thinking about it" gets really old after a while.

The greenest shoping bag is one that you don't use. Anyone thought of mentioning here the idea of consuming less? The wellspring of all the idiocy about green this and that is the notion that you can be "green" and still live as luxuriantly as ever. Only a few generations ago, they had a word for it: 'gluttony'.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 28 Sep 2008 #permalink

Paul Murray, plenty of environmentalists promote consuming less. It just doesn't happen to be the focus of this discussion.

I'd like to know where the regular plastic grocery bags are manufactured. They may be shipped as well, in which case criticizing reuseable bags on those grounds is a tad illogical.