Greenwashing of the Week

I am hereby bestowing my illustrious “Greenwashing” award, which will be noted by at least 50 people, to the company Future Shop, for their not-quite-stated Earth Day flyer.

It is hard for me to write this, because they have pulled off the most creative and effective form of greenwashing, namely, making a significant financial contribution to one of my preferred environmental organizations. This is a get-out-of-responsibility free card, of sorts, since I find myself reluctant to criticize as a result. Nonetheless…

This is the most literal example of greenwashing I’ve ever seen; each page of the flyer has an actual wash of green in the background, even the pages with plain old consumer electronics.

The cover features the statement, “It’s easy being green. (See inside for energy-saving tips and savings.)”

This example of greenwashing is audacious, bold, daring!

The BlackBerry PlayBook right next to energy saving tips? Genius! Completely unrelated, yet reassuring.

It does get better on later pages, with genuinely useful tips like:

  • Use a front loading washing machine, wash in cold and hang to dry whenever possible. This one I was surprised to see, since they don’t sell clotheslines. Although, since washers and dryers are usually sold in pairs, it probably wouldn’t significantly affect their sales. I might hang my clothes whenever possible, but in a damp cold climate, I’m reluctant to give up the dryer.
  • Also, if you are going to use your dryer, make sure that you run the spin cycle on the washer as high as possible to minimize drying time.
  • Turn off the power to your electronics when they are not in use. (They are kind enough to sell a power bar that will do it for you.)
  • Buy Energy Star appliances and TV’s.
  • Use a rechargeable Universal remote… only $229.99. Let’s you stop using expensive and environmentally unfriendly disposable batteries, apparently. I’m pretty sure that the remote for my 10 year old DVD player has only gone through two changes of rechargeables, actually, so this seems to be an expensive solution to a problem I don’t have.

Which brings me to my real point… green consumerism, and the idea that we can buy our way to sustainability. Don’t get me wrong: if you are planning to buy a new appliance or television, you should consider its power consumption. Keep in mind, however, that the Energy Star designation means that the item is more efficient than a target set for comparable items, not necessarily that it is a low power consumer in absolute terms. If you really want to make a difference, you should choose a smaller TV and watch it less. Or buy a smaller refrigerator.

More important, though, is not trading in those electronics that are still perfectly serviceable to get something newer with a couple more features. Yes, if you have a gas-guzzler, a power-sucking 15 year old fridge, or a computer that looks a lot like a 1980’s space ship, you might reduce your fuel or power consumption by trading in/up. But if you are replacing a working phone, you need to consider the embodied energy, and whether you actually need the new phone.

Need. Hard one, that.

What does it mean to “need” when your job might hinge on having that BlackBerry? You might need it. We have expectations. Other people have expectations of us.

During the discussion of the Wall Street Salary cap, I read a non-satirical article on how expensive it is to live in New York as an executive. The place of consumer spending was highlighted as a key to maintaining social status, and by extension, continued access to employment. “Each Brooks Brothers suit costs about $1,000. If you run a bank, you can’t look like a slob.”

(Apparently they also “need” two $8000 vacations per year, and possibly a $4 million summer home. This is an extreme example, but we are all prey to it in our own ways.)

“Going green is good,” says Future Shop. I’m the last one who is going to disagree with that. But I will say that in the face of all the social pressures to the contrary, it isn’t actually easy.

This is how the Future Shop flyer is a greenwashing campaign, no matter how well-intentioned or useful the tips may be.

We need to keep in mind the order of these three-R’s:

  1. First Reduce.
  2. Then Reuse.
  3. Then Recycle.

The electronics industry, of which the company is a retail arm, has a business model based on stoking/stroking our unknown wants:

  1. Make new(ish) technologies (Does the iPhone 4 really change everything. Again?),
  2. advertise them so that they become so pervasive that participation is part of the cost of entry to society (or is at least perceived to be).
  3. Turn wants into needs, and then sell people the same thing they already bought in a different form, rendering the previous solution that they bought from you obsolete, and therefore garbage.

Don’t believe me? How many times have you replaced your movie collection? Was it because you hated your DVD player? Or your VHS? Or your BetaMax? Or your laser disc player? Or was it because somebody told you that they were no longer good enough? Or stopped making that format? (Editor’s note to my past self from 2024: oh, things were about to get so much weirder.)

On a related note, let me also ask, how much larger is your television than it was 20 years ago? Why is that, do you think? Were you sitting in your living room thinking, “This would be so much better on a TV the size of the wall?”

Or was that idea planted in your mind, all unawares?

Before I sign off, I’m going to come back around to the original statement by Future Shop: I suppose that it can be easy being green, if we consider reducing our desires and expectations easy.

There are a lot of green choices that are green by default, by inaction.

  • Don’t go on that car trip.
  • Don’t buy that new phone.
  • Don’t buy more clothes than you can actually wear.
  • Pass on the giant TV. (For the cost of the giant TV, you could get a smaller one, AND the solar panels to run it!)
  • Make do with less stuff.
  • Repair, pass things along, buy used if you can.

All green choices.

But remarkably difficult when a stack of flyers arrives at the end of my driveway every week reminding us how hopelessly out of date all of our stuff is. (Ed, 2024: Or when the entire world has become a social media ad.)

3 responses to “Greenwashing of the Week”

  1. We generally wait until our stuff dies before replacing it 🙂 Our old tv we repaired twice and had for years before it gave up the ghost again and we replaced it. At times when computers were old and wouldn’t run anything new anymore we got a new one and donated the old to schools, or gave away through freecycle. We hate tossing stuff in the garbage if we can help it – such a waste.

    • Yup. It’s not that we never get new stuff, or *even* that it is a bad idea or wrong to get new stuff. It is to be conscious of what, when, and how much. In the face of great pressure to do otherwise.