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‘Recyclable’ Is So Last-Century

Last fall, I used the term “greenwashing” in a panel discussion with business leaders in Austin, Texas. Though this is a phrase my business partner and I have been using since the early ’90s, some of these well-educated, high-profile people in the audience chuckled as if this was the first time they’d heard the term.

As much as I wanted to say I’d invented the word, I explained that greenwashing is a term that describes disingenuous environmental marketing. Probably the reason not everyone has heard much of the term until now is that back when it was invented, “environment” and “marketing” were practically mutually exclusive. “Green” was reserved for the tree-huggers and fringe products that didn’t work very well. Today, we’re driving luxury hybrid SUVs and shopping at expensive organic grocery stores. Greenwashing is now a million times more relevant because millions more dollars are being invested in green advertising campaigns.

Making everything more complex are all the new enviro-terms that have found their way into the consumer world of the 21st century. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission moved up by one year the regulatory review of its environmental marketing standards. If you look at these “Green Guides,” which haven’t been updated since 1998, you’ll get a vivid reminder of the stark changes in the environmental world. The FTC’s decade-old Green Guides address environmental terms such as:

  • Recyclable
  • Recycled-content
  • Reusable
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Nontoxic
  • Biodegradable
  • Compostable
  • Less waste
  • Refillable
  • Ozone safe/friendly

Take a look at the greenspeak in today’s environmental marketing claims, and the above terms seem downright rudimentary. Late 20th-century concerns about landfill space and the ozone layer have taken a back seat to “climate change.” In expensive ad campaigns running on CNN, energy companies are touting the latest non-fossil-fuel technological advancements. Meanwhile, we can’t read a milk carton or a magazine without seeing claims like “100 percent wind-powered.” Watch the news or examine the fine print in today’s green marketing, and you’ll see much more sophisticated terms like:

  • Carbon offsets
  • Renewable energy credits
  • Carbon dioxide emissions
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Hydrogen fuel cells
  • Hybrid engine
  • Methane gas
  • Geothermal energy
  • Ethanol
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Carbon storage
  • Carbon trading
  • Cap and trade
  • Deforestation
  • Carbon footprint
  • Product supply chain

Suddenly, “recyclable” seems so old-school. When the FTC held its first workshop reviewing its Green Guides in January, carbon offsets and renewable energy credits were the topic of the day, and the only consensus was that the carbon market is chaotic and difficult to define. This just illustrates still further the huge leap we’ve taken in the environmental world over the last decade. The core rationale for recycling your soda can – to save landfill space – truly does seem so much more straightforward than lightening your carbon footprint. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling’s important, but today, it’s relevant to point out that recycling also helps reduce CO2 emissions and applies to new commodities like your old desk-top computer that never saw the light of day until 2004. (By the way, what’s going to happen to all the old analog TVs that will surely be replaced when TV broadcasting goes digital next year?)

Next up at the FTC workshop on April 30: Product Packaging. Maybe, just maybe, this one won’t be so technical. But when you think about the claims that end up on product packaging these days, I’d count on the brain-strain again. See you there.

Valerie Davis is president of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting.

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