Leonardo DiCaprio is doing it, Walmart is doing it and even the Fox News Network is doing it. Now, just two days after the 28th Annual Earth Day — and in an era when Global Warming is being recognized as dictionary-worthy by most Americans — going green is becoming, as Time magazine aptly put it, the next red, white and blue.
There’s no doubt that this proliferation of environmental awareness is very much needed. In an economy that comprises 70 percent consumer spending, more and more people are choosing to, as writer Bill McKibben deems it, vote with their dollars. With a menagerie of hyped-up, ecologically friendly products — ranging from symbolically colored hybrids to “green,” toxin-free plastic vibrators — more concerned citizens are able to satisfy their conscience (among other things).
But what does being green mean? As with the ubiquitous ‘organic,’ are some forgetting to pry apart its meaning? Green, after all, isn’t necessarily synonymous with local, humane or ‘ecological panacea.’ It doesn’t guarantee that a so-called eco-product won’t harm the earth and its inhabitants in another way. Corn-based ethanol, for example, is an alternative to petroleum, but is also currently causing the world’s food supply to dwindle and food prices to rise. Is this justifiable? You decide.
That prepackaged soup at the supermarket may come in a biodegradable bowl, but we often have to dig through the layers of cardboard and plastic enclosing it to get there. We should strive to dampen our impact on the environment, but also double-check that the greenest item of all isn’t merely our currency. As our beloved environmentalist Ronald Reagan even said, “Trust, but verify.”
The environmental marketing company TerraChoice did just that in their study, published last December, entitled “The Six Sins of Greenwashing.” After an analysis of 1,018 “green” consumer products, they found a variety of uncertified “certified organic” food items, “energy-efficient appliances” containing toxic materials, and even a case of the lesser of two evils: organic cigarettes. True statements, as well, contained insignificant data; yes, a product is CFC-free, but that has applied to every product in the United States since the pesticide was banned 20 years ago.
But despite green’s widespread use — and sometimes abuse — there are more than a few authentic efforts worthy of our attention and possibly our dollars as well. Take the ENERGY STAR program, a co-effort between the EPA and Department of Energy. It puts a label on products it deems energy-efficient and helped Americans save $16 million in utility bills last year — not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 27 million cars. Chiquita Banana partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to establish the Better Banana Program, which allowed them to cut pesticides, manage their wastes better and, as an added bonus, come out $80 million ahead in profits. Even Walmart (put your crosses down, Santa Cruzans) has recently set a lofty plan for the next three years: eliminate 30 percent of the energy used in its stores and increase efficiency of its vehicle fleet by 25 percent.
As climate change is making itself visible, heard, and often felt, going green can no longer be a “matter of personal virtue,” as Dick Cheney infamously described energy conservation. Stepping outside the sphere of our purchasing power, or lack thereof, it’s important to ask what can be done on an everyday basis. Perhaps it’s getting on a bike. Perhaps it’s installing a compact fluorescent light bulb. Or perhaps it’s buying a pair of organic cotton pants — after asking why they are needed so badly in the first place.