Green Washing and Sustainability: Don’t Trust the Label


USDA organic labelStainless steel water bottles, reusable bags, and recycling are frequently associated with “going green” or “sustainability” in U.S. popular culture. However, if asked to define sustainability, chances are, most Americans would falter. At the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987, sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By the 2005 World Summit, it had been determined that sustainable development requires the collaboration of environmental, social and economic needs, known as the “three pillars” or the “triple bottom line” of sustainability. The phrase, “going green” is now frowned upon by most sustainability advocates because of its emphasis on environmental sustainability and complete omission of the economic and social aspects.

The three pillars of sustainability are colloquially referred to as the three E’s: environment, economy, equity. Some scholars describe sustainability as healthy environments, strong economies, and social justice. Proponents of this interpretation disagree with the common phrase “people, profit, planet” and stress the difference between strong economies and economic growth. Rapid economic growth leads to a cycle of decline, rise, and recession, whereas strong economies exhibit stability, fairness and security. Only companies that are “too big to fail” have the means to capitalize on the economic highs and lows that come with rapid growth, leaving local business owners at an extreme disadvantage. Supporting local businesses, especially local farmers, is arguably the most important step toward reducing human impact on the environment, which means that exponential economic growth should be scrutinized.

A term is considered “ambiguous” if vague by accident, but “equivocal” if vague by intent. The question becomes to what extent are manufacturers able to take advantage of the enigmatic nature of the term ‘sustainability’ to effectively green wash their products?

In a heavily green washed society, we must look past the initial solution towards a solution that is truly beneficial for all involved. For example, various cosmetics companies boast incorporating “natural” elements in their products. Sure a seaweed mask sounds organic and earthy, but most transnational cosmetic companies use large machines that completely destroy the ocean floor as they obtain all of the seaweed in the area. Pangea Organics, an ecocentric body care line, sources the seaweed for its masks from Nature Spirit Herbs in the Pacific Northwest. These seaweed harvesters hand pick one in four seaweed plants within the area at a sustainable rate of harvest so that the kelp and other organisms can still feed and the ecosystem can still thrive. Herein lays the issue with the ambiguity of sustainability: consumers must read the fine print. Sourcing, with transportation and refrigeration costs (both economically and environmentally), contributes to an immense amount of our greenhouse gas emissions, once again showing the importance of local products. The CEO and founder of Pangea Organics was given the opportunity to immensely expand the company to millions of potential new buyers, but declined the offer because Pangea Organics would no longer be able to source the ingredients for their cosmetics in a truly sustainable way, while still meeting consumer demand. This business strategy exemplifies the importance of small, local businesses in a society on the cusp of a sustainable movement.

Many earth-conscious consumers look not only for natural cosmetics, but for food that is USDA certified organic. While this seems initially sustainable, it is important to consider the cost of the USDA organic certification. In the United States, multi-million dollar agribusinesses comprise only 2.5 percent of the number of American farms, but make 59 percent of the total profit of the agricultural sector of the economy (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2007 Census of Agriculture, Vol. 1). In other words, the majority of the farms in the United States are small farms that make less than $1,000 a year and cannot afford to officially certify their products as organic, even if they are not using pesticides or fertilizers. USDA Organic certification is a lengthy and expensive process; full of inspections, reports, applicant files, and interviews that are reviewed to ensure compliance with the National Organic Program. Being environmentally informed is going beyond reading the label, it is visiting local farmers markets, participating in community gardens, and supporting urban farming.

I interpret sustainability as a fusion of environmentalism and humanitarianism that provides a foundation for community renewal. When sustainability is viewed not as a privilege or an obstacle, but as an opportunity for growth, community ties are strengthened, local economies thrive, and ecosystems are preserved for generations to come. 

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