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Roadside greenwash reminders from coal country

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Riding through Pennsylvania on my way home from a lovely family wedding a few days ago, I had a glimpse into why greenwash detectors like our blog are extremely important for society to continue its march toward sustainability. Interstate 76 was lined with billboards by Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy, lauding coal as “clean & green” and saying that without coal, many of the state’s cities would be in the dark.

While coal’s current importance in our country (we generate almost half our electricity from the fuel) is clear, the statement “clean & green” is certainly a stretch. The group did include a caveat that said “with new technologies” but the new technology of carbon capture and storage is completely untested in the world marketplace. Their claim seems like calling a Hummer “clean & green” because it is conceivable that consumers would purchase plug-in hybrid Hummers because plug-in hybrid is largely understood (though none are on the market yet).

In such times when green is chic and PR executives claim their clients to be so, consumers need two essential elements to cut through the noise:

The first is the establishment of transparent standards that can compare business practices within sectors (and potentially across sectors). Some of the best ones include LEED standards for green building and an emerging tool called STARS being put together by AASHE to weigh green cred between college campuses. We need to keep improving and expanding user-friendly standards for folks to gauge the greenness of different companies and their goods.

The second vital element is the public voice of watchdogs: whether they be Bill Moyers-types in the media, institutions in the nonprofit sector and academia, and even bloggers like us — as long as our notes are read by a wide enough audience.

I hope green continues to stay chic and that more greenwash-vigilant entities rise up to empower consumers and citizens with verifiable knowledge that the products and services we buy live up to our values. Props to Marketplace for their efforts, and here’s hoping we can make more progress in the months and years ahead!

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