The Greenwash Brigade

A proliferation of definitions – that’s the problem

Janne K. Flisrand Jan 12, 2008

Heidi reports 8 million web pages featuring sustainable development, and pointed out that there is “no dearth of sustainability criteria, labels and certification systems.” Frankly, I think that’s precisely the problem. Just reading her post, I felt so overwhelmed my brain tuned out.

I see two problems.

1) If there are 8 million pages featuring sustainable development, it’s too many to be any good for “regular” non-expert people. It’s also so many, manufacturers can find the right one to fit their purposes, honorable or not.

2) Too many criteria, labels and certification systems confuse consumers. Which of the multiple fair trade certifications is best? Certainly niche products (like low-VOC building products) need a very specific certification, but that’s not useful for general consumers. Hyper-stringent standards (like Cradle to Cradle) also play a role, but they aren’t accessible to most products.

There needs to be a small number of certifications that are meaningful, achieve significant market penetration so they can be found in stores, and that people can recognize and grasp — think Energy Star.

I simply don’t think the American consumer — an expert at consuming, but not an expert in every technical area of manufacturing — who wants to consume in a more sustainable way should need a masters degree to understand labeling on products.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.  

Need some Econ 101?

Our new Marketplace Crash Course is here to help. Sign-up for free, learn at your own pace.