Are you actually living eco-friendly? How to 'go green' without getting greenwashed

Many people approach a New Year with resolutions to make healthy lifestyle changes.

Considering the state of our environment, perhaps you want to be eco-conscious in 2020. But as you prepare for a more sustainable lifestyle, beware: There is misinformation out there and companies trying to take advantage of your desire to go green.

As a Sustainability Coordinator for the Allen County Department of Environmental Management (ACDEM), I’d like to help you navigate some of the marketing tricks around environmental issues that may be confusing.

Let’s start with product packaging.

Vague words like “green,” “eco-Friendly,” “earth-friendly,” and “natural” are thrown around a lot in marketing, and they make us feel like we’re doing something good with our purchases. They claim to refer to products or practices that try to are more aligned with nature—as opposed to polluting or harming our environment. 

But the problem with these terms is that there are no “rules” for applying them to sales tactics. That means products don’t have to meet certain criteria or standards to be labeled “green” or “all-natural,” and this creates confusion among consumers.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen words and images slapped onto a label for something that is definitely not a good choice for protecting the environment—or might only be beneficial in a very limited way. It’s a tactic called “greenwashing,” and the words “natural” and “recyclable” are often used in this way, too.

For example, I recently pulled a foam takeout container out of the recycling bin shared by the offices on our floor.  Styrofoam© is not recyclable in Allen County, but I know why the product’s user probably thought it was.

There is a little triangle with arrows and a number embossed on the bottom of the container, which we usually think of as the ultimate “green flag” that this item is recyclable. However, this symbol only indicates that it theoretically can be recycled—as long as you have the technology to process certain plastics. 

In the case of polystyrene, the process to make the product is super toxic, so the method to recycle it is incredibly energy intensive, and there aren’t many great options for new things to turn it into.

So it’s not recyclable after all. Even so, while I was looking at this container, I noticed that it is also branded as an “Eco Pack,” making it seem as though it is somehow contributing to the healthy ecological balance of our environment.

The lesson here: Before you buy or recycle a product that’s intended to be “green,” take a moment to do some research and make sure your understanding is correct.

If the item has images of green leaves, uses packaging in earth tones, and seems like it will further your goal of helping future generations have a healthy planet, check those claims. Think upstream and downstream, too. What is it made of?  What will happen to it when you are done with it? Is there an alternative where you can borrow, thrift, rent, or repurpose something without buying new?

A quick Google search can help you answer most of these questions, but there are third parties that can assist, too. For instance, Good Guide is an app that lets you scan items and read their environmental scorecard.

In Allen County, you can also email me. One of the things I do every day is help people weigh the ecological pros and cons of their choices. 

Just like getting in shape, it takes work to improve your environmental footprint, and you’ll have moments of doubt along the way. But if you start learning and practicing in small ways this year, it will get easier and less intimidating with time.

If you think about it, living a green lifestyle is just as important as—and really, an extension of—our physical health. Let’s make 2020 the year to take care of our shared resources for life.

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected]
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