Market Trends: Greenwashing

Walmart sells organics; sets up a fruit stand in front of their automated doors.  Hundreds of thousands of re-useable bags decorated with pre-war iconography; sold for $1 apiece: made in China. McDonalds: jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, claiming it has had interest interest in sustainability for over 20 years. Really.

There are two camps in this argument of sustainability and marketing sustainability: One is that any step a company takes to improve on their business model to make for a more sustainable product is a good one. The other is that any company that uses the word "sustainable" and produces a product made by machinery or by factory or uses power other than manpower is inherently lying, no matter how clean their intentions. This is greenwashing.

So the two ideas of major corporations and better practices are -in my mind, anyway- mutually exclusive. Walmart can sell organic produce, but it is only organic by USDA standards, which, doesn't necessarily take into consideration a number of different factors that are implied by the term, "organic." Organic still uses pesticides and fertilizers; organic still uses tractors and they certainly push the limits of production for profit, of course. It's a better choice than nothing at all, but it's not necessarily sustainable. Organic is a methodology of raising materials; sustainability is the ability to continue to produce them.

Consumers can buy retro-styled graphic bags made in China under sweatshop conditions and sold for $1 at the checkout lane of Whole Foods, but that doesn't make it a good thing to do. Better might be to get a couple from an artisan using reclaimed materials, diverting the material's ultimate destination of the landfill, if even for just a little while.

McDonalds can claim they have  "taken many positive steps" toward sustainability for 20 years; meanwhile, they have contributed to deforestation of the Amazon in a myriad of ways, from clear cutting for cattle to clear cutting for soybeans.

The trouble in the argument is in the consumer: The consumer wants to feel good about his purchases, despite the very real outcome of his choices. Companies want to cash in on this feeling and they, rightly so, will capitalize on it as best they can. For some companies, it may mean real change; and that's good. But we have to be critical as consumers; we have to ask questions and we have to think further than our immediate pleasures. We can't always have everything we want when we want it. At least, not if we want to be contributing to a solution. That is fact.

As much as all of us can applaud companies that make better choices with less carbon, it's important to remember that any company that produces any product that requires manufacturing of any sort really can't call itself "sustainable" without lying even a little bit. By its very nature, manufacturing is not sustainable. Baby steps are good, but we need more than that now.

If you're going to buy anything at all: buy accountable, not hype.

Photo credit: mattymatt