Acton Commentary

Greenboozled


Being "green" is the new cool. Your family's "green Christmas" and toy purchases from Greentoys.com this season will advertise to your friends and relatives that you care about the environment. But environmentalists are balking. They say that too many companies are claiming to be green and thus are "greenwashing" everything.

Greenpeace describes greenwashing as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. The deeper irony is that greenwashing was the original tactic many environmentalists used to manipulate us into adopting practices that actually do not sustain the environment. A another term for greenwashing would be greenboozled.

One of the unintended consequences of a greenwashing environmental rhetoric is that being green has turned into a fad. Marketing departments have discovered how easy it is to sell products to people who want to feel good about their consumption problem. Greenwashing works because most Americans do not think about negative spill-over effects, environmental processes, long-term effects on the poor, or the economic implications of allegedly environment-friendly proposals. Simply saying something is green is enough for most of us. Who cares if it's true or if it works? We are satisfied with the arbitrary labeling.

Environmentalists do not want us to believe the green claims coming from large corporations in manufacturing and energy production, but these are the same people that greenwashed us into believing that ethanol is environmentally better than gasoline, that recycling improves the environment, and many other such greenwashed untruths. Stewardship of the environment is yet another area furnishing evidence that ethical integrity is critical to effective action. We need more honesty and less exaggeration.

The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), the nation's primary advocacy group promoting the use of E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol fuel, 15 percent gasoline) as a form of alternative transportation fuel, was positioned to greenwash us until Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University and other researchers revealed our ignorance. In a 2007 study, Jacobson demonstrated that ethanol is just as bad for the environment as gasoline.

Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline. In fact, if we move toward the proposed E85 fuel goals, it may increase ozone-related mortality, hospitalization, and asthma by 4 percent in the United States as a whole relative to 100 percent gasoline use. Jacobson and others have concluded with confidence only that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles. Unburned ethanol emissions from E85 may result in a global-scale source of acetaldehyde larger than that of direct emissions. Why then is NEVC still greenboozling the American public?

Perhaps the greatest greenwash of all is the mythology surrounding the environmental benefits of recycling. In reality, the only real beneficiaries of the recycling movement are environmental groups and recycling companies. According to Progressive Investor, from 1968 to 2008, the recycling industry grew from $4.6 billion in annual sales to roughly $236 billion.

However, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle, employing the use of reason coupled with hard data, demonstrate that the energy, chemicals, and toxins used in the recycling process create products and environmental waste that is just as hazardous as original production. This is true in part because we do not manufacture products to be recycled at the outset. As such, the waste that is produced when putting metals, plastics, and paper through recycling processes yields no environmental gain.

As McDonough and Braungart point out, the products we think we are "recycling" are actually "downcycled"--that is, we transform the material into one of lesser quality when we recycle metals, plastics, paper, and so on. For example, paper requires extensive bleaching and other chemicals to make it white again for reuse resulting in a mixture of chemicals, pulp, and at times, toxic inks.

Why, then, does the National Recycling Coalition encourage environmentally harmful processes and recycled products that eventually end up in landfills anyway? There is nothing wrong with recycling as an industry but the public should not be fooled into believing that recycling helps the environment.

What our conversations about the environment need, on all sides, is truthfulness rooted in the recognition that good intentions do not make good policy. Truthfulness in environmentalism is a call to weigh the facts, prioritize the needs of the poor, and keep government bureaucrats from instituting policy based on greenboozling rhetoric so that we can effectively meet the needs of human welfare and responsible care for our environment.