Book Review: Green Washed - Have Americans lost the big picture by focusing on buying 'green'?  
by Rachel Signer
February 17
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“Our slim, trim and sleek new box is 10% smaller than before! The paper savings alone equal over 1000 trees per year and energy savings equal to heating about 38 homes per year!” –Organic [USDA certified] FlaxPlus Granola, from Nature’s Path, $3.99

“ECOS is formulated to be the purest, greenest, most effective 100% natural detergent. With its neutral pH, plant-based ECOS cleans to the most exacting standards, yet is extremely gentle on fabrics.” – ECOS Liquid Laundry Detergent, $6.99

Looking through my kitchen cabinets, I found the above products, labeled to assure me of their “sustainability.”

But while using products that claim to be green may provide small, short-term benefits those of us who can afford to buy them, it’s a problem if, because we have such products on our shelves at home, we are patting our own backs and turning a blind eye to the structural and systemic nature of our global environmental crisis. Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet (to come out with Ig Publishing in April 2012) is the first book by Kendra Pierre-Louis, the sustainable development editor for Justmeans.com, a website that reports on sustainability and social responsibility in business. In the book, she argues against the notion that buying green products or, in a parallel vein, turning to renewable energy sources like biofuel, are sufficient responses to the destruction that industrialization and hyper-consumption have brought upon our natural resources.

Rigorously researched, Green Washed describes how businesses have been held environmentally unaccountable for so long, that systems and structures that harm the planet are already deeply embedded in every industry we rely on. “Green washing” is an idea that typically refers to instances where companies who practice unsustainable business try to redeem their bad reputations with corporate social responsibility campaigns. An example of this would be the Chevron “I agree” ads heavily placed in widely-read magazines, which say things like, “Oil companies should put their profits to good use.” (The Yes Men did a parody campaign which aired ads on a website that appeared to be the official campaign site, saying, “Oil companies should clean up their messes: We agree.”)

In her book, Pierre-Louis expands the notion of green washing to expose how corporate abuse of the environment and American hyper-consumerism go unchecked—as long as people think they are buying “green” products. Again and again, she points out how this view can be misleading, and how it is based on an individualist, consumerist cultural norm: “The rise of green industries ties neatly into our attitudes as a nation, as we increasingly define ourselves not by what we do (employment or hobbies), or who we are connected to (friends, families), but by what we buy.”

Green Washed is a study of the most current environmental problems viewed through the lens of consumption: apparel, food, health and beauty aids, automobiles, water, and buildings; in the manner of an investigative journalist, Pierre-Louis scours the available literature and illuminates the hidden health and environmental costs of products that appear to be eco-friendly. The main problem, overall, is that no matter how a product is manufactured or marketed, Americans are simply consuming too much of everything—resulting in pointless waste, excessive transportation costs, and over-usage of scarce energy. "We use a tremendous amount of resources, and do irreparable harm to the planet, to fabricate stuff that exists for only the briefest moment before we simply throw it out," she writes.

Even alternative forms of energy, such as biofuel or wind farming, have their downfalls, Pierre-Louis skillfully demonstrates: biofuel relies on pesticide and fertilizer-heavy monoculture of corn, which depletes soil; according to a 2005 study by two professors from Cornell and Berkeley, manufacturing ethanol requires so much energy that it may even result in a net energy loss. Solar power is similarly too-often viewed through a rose—or “green,” we should say—colored lens: manufacturing solar panels releases sulfur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas, and furthermore, we are nowhere near a precedent of having made solar arrays large enough to produce even a fraction of what the planet’s larger cities consume. Energy efficiency is a myth; what we desperately need is energy conservation. “In short,” writes Pierre-Louis, “alternative energy can meet our needs, but not our greed.”

And a robust critique of modern society’s greed is at the center of Green Washed. As Pierre-Louis points out, the United States has become, and grown to see itself as, a nation of consumers—“We spend up to a quarter of our leisure time, nearly an hour a day, shopping. On vacation, our preferred activity is to shop some more.” A movement has been growing to “downsize” material possessions across the country, Pierre-Louis notes, citing the growing Tiny House fad as an example. Similarly, she writes that, in a “truly sustainable world…stuff would return to being just stuff and not symbolic ways of filling a void of low-self worth, of ego.”

Pierre-Louis then poses “the obvious question,” of why Americans are not dealing with their consumption problem. And she concludes that it is “because our economy won’t let us”—a somewhat disappointing answer. The economy, of course, exists as a complex web of ever-changing policies and economic behaviors. Pierre-Louis may be right to suggest that Americans shop to fill a “void of low-self worth, of ego,” but if so, readers may want to know where that void comes from—besides the abstract “economy”--and what can be done about it. Later in the book, fortunately, Pierre-Louis makes her answer much clearer.

Pierre-Louis provides exhaustive data to argue that shopping green and looking to renewable energy sources will never be enough if we don’t stop consuming at an excessive rate—and fortunately, she goes one step further, to explain how that might happen. The problem has to do with the idea, so ingrained in our national discourse, that economic growth is the key to success.


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