As a former denizen of Portland, OR — arguably one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the country — I often write about topics having to do with conservation and responsible consumership, because that’s simply how I grew up.
But more and more, I’m seeing the word “green” being used as a euphemism for “trendy” or “new.” While it’s nice that businesses are using eco-responsible practices to signify their “hipness,” I often see it being used as a marketing gimmick to help push products en masse out to the public. Is that what it really means to be green? Not to me.
The truth is, buying a bunch of “stuff” isn’t very green at all. Anytime you’re buying new — even if it’s a fuel-efficient car, organic-cotton clothes or even paraben-free toys — you’re still contributing to the mass manufacturing of goods and the overall degradation of virgin resources.
It’s true no one can avoid consumerism altogether: we all have to buy stuff or we couldn’t survive (or have any fun!). But if you’re serious about protecting the environment, the goal shouldn’t be about buying everything you see that’s “green” just to keep up with the Joneses. What’s more useful is to take a flexible, if holistic approach: SOME of the time, try buying used instead of new. SOME of the time, walk instead of drive. And occasionally, try buying a little less from a big corporation (with a bad reputation), and a little more from your Mom ‘n Pop corner store who has relationships with local vendors. It’s as simple as that. Perhaps this all sounds a bit lofty, but let’s take a very pedestrian example:
Otarian, a new vegetarian, “low-carbon” restaurant in New York is being called, “a vegetarian fast food chain with the planet on its mind” by the New York Times. On their “Menu-festo,” they display their “Eco-tarian labeling,” which shows the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between their veggie meals and similar meat, fish or egg dishes at other places. But even though their mission is to use 100% recycled packaging (of which they use a lot) and a “Proximity Principle” — where no ingredient comes from further away than a truck can drive (even if it’s nearly as far as a gas-guzzling plane ride), there’s still real reason to take pause here:
A typical restaurant (and we’re not even talking about FAST FOOD restaurants) consumes more energy per square foot than any other US industry, uses up to a million litres of water and produces an average of 50,000 pounds of trash per year. And are you really being green if you DROVE all the way to this food establishment? In New York it may be a wash, but in the rest of the country–doubtful.
Cathy Erway, a Brooklyn blogger and author of “The Art of Eating In” insists that “it’s easier, cheaper and and overall more advantageous trying to be green while cooking at home.” What she means by this is that by the time you add up the energy it takes to mass-manufacture a vegetarian meal at a fast-food chain, you may as well have enjoyed a nice big, (gasp!) non-organic slab of delicious steak at home.
The trouble is that big-business and eateries like Otarian — while cloaking themselves in a cape of conservation — are actually encouraging wide-spread consumption. I admire Otarian because they’re probably doing the best they can in an industry fraught with waste. But it’s a bit misleading: it’s environmentalism wrapped in pretty (100% recyclable) packaging, and I’m just not buying it.
Other ideas that aren’t so green?
You might think you’re getting the best of both worlds by driving a mega-sized vehicle that saves on gas, but actually these hybrids get worse gas mileage than most sedans.
Gadgets galore for the home are marketed as “green,” like the “nano-silver washing machine”. This appliance says it eliminates the need for detergent. But to work correctly the nano-silver includes a form of pesticide (plus since when is silver mining good for the environment?)
Researchers have created a new kind of plastic made from urea, a bi-product from the pork industry. But when this bioplastic breaks down in landfills, it actually releases methane, one of the major causes of green house gas emissions. On top of that, bioplastic still requires the use of some petroleum-based plastics in is manufacturing. Not exactly an eco-win.
Photo courtesy of: Commons.wikimedia.org