I have become increasingly disturbed at the world of consumer ‘eco-branding’. It was inevitable that goods were going to be labelled as ‘green’ as soon as there was evidence of consumer uptake. The trouble is that the consumer doesn’t necessarily know what ‘green’ means, and therefore is left open to exploitation by marketers.
I recently attended IFA in Berlin, where almost every company proffered its green credentials, how they were saving the planet one television at a time. Something that sticks in my mind is the message now common on hot air hand-dryers – ‘no paper towels means better for the environment’, seemingly ignoring the 2kW heating element. Even worse, where the consumer is able to measure impact personally – through an electricity bill –companies are still bending the truth, promising returns on investment that are unrealistic for even the most prolific consumers. But how can we solve this problem?
As far as I see it, there are only two solutions; Legislation or Socialism (although some say those are the same). There will always be companies who are willing to sacrifice integrity for the sake of sales, bending the truth in order to convince naive consumers, unless there are rules to prevent it. Legislation already exists to make energy consumption easier for consumers of white goods in the EU. But it is based largely on energy consumption, not depletion of resources, toxicity, global warming potential, etc. Although standards for the conducting of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) is already in place, the output is very rarely seen, and almost never understood, by the consumer.
Consumers hunting 'green' products, are being told how much money it will save them, not how much damage it will cause to the eco-system. It's difficult to argue that the two are the same, despite rising energy costs. Cheaper products are often made in less sustainable ways, and sometimes even contain harmful substances (remember CFL light bulbs?), hiding behind the numbers that make their product look better, and forgetting the rest. But the typical modern consumer is not equipped to cope with the full output of an LCA. Education of the consumer to be a more discerning judge of green credentials is a mammoth task; again falling to governments. Either prevent greenwashing, or educate people to recognise it.
Companies can draw a line in the sand now. Reliable information about products and practices that are easy to interpret and not misleading will leave consumers feeling valued and edified. Good practice now will future-proof products against upcoming legislation and establish a good reputation with regulators and consumers alike. Transparency and honesty are the only way to create sustainable ‘sustainable’ designs.
At the very least, don’t patronise us with unrealistic promises. It’s not easy to save the world, if it were, everyone would really be doing it, rather than just claiming to.