J500 Media and the Environment

It’s not easy being greenwashed by jseverin

This morning I hopped in the shower, washed my hair using a bar shampoo that was packaged in only a small amount of paper (not a giant plastic bottle) and used a paraben-free body wash with natural oils & extracts. But I might as well have been slathering myself with green paint. After all, I am greenwashing every day. Despite using these eco-friendly personal care products, I turned the water up extra hot and just stood there for awhile to help relax the kink in my neck that I seemed to develop overnight.

The greenwashing in my life doesn’t stop there. I’m in the midst of remodeling our home office into a nursery as we anxiously await our first born. I’m proud to admit that I used a low-VOC finish on the hardwood floor and no-VOC paint on the walls. We are searching Craigslist and used furniture stores for a crib and other furniture to give new life to someone else’s discards. We are registering for BPA-free bottles, organic onesies and the safest baby shampoo we can find.

Meanwhile, our lives will soon be full of new plastic toys, disposable diapers, and all the other short-lived items and environmental impacts that come with having a baby. In moving our office to the room next door, we replaced our massive old reclaimed desk with a sleek new mass-produced particle board desk that came packed in a 40-gallon trash can’s worth of Styrofoam. And from the smell of things, that desk is probably off-gassing enough VOCs to make up for all the toxic fumes I carefully avoided in the nursery. These are the things I try to keep quiet as I greenwash about our future eco-baby.

To me, thats what greenwashing is about: all of the stories that aren’t being told. To a degree, I’m doing the same thing corporations accused of greenwashing are doing. I brag about my environmental victories but keep quiet about the things that aren’t so green. No one is attacking me for my lifestyle, so why do we have a different standard for businesses made up of individuals just like me?

Perhaps we need to measure the “greenness” of a corporation or business by how much progress it is making and not just by a snapshot of on any given day. That snapshot may show that the company is doing more harm than good, even if the good portion has been increasing over time. There is a big difference between a company that simply absolves itself of environmental sins with offsets alone and one that has made incremental improvements – no matter how small – to reduce emissions in the first place.

I feel I’m making progress in greening my life, and I think the business community is doing the same, even if it isn’t changing as quickly as we would like. True there are companies who are just coating themselves with a thin green wash. But before we accuse a company of such a crime, we need to take a look at their track record, then give them time to prove themselves with continued improvement.

– Jeff Severin


7 Comments so far
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Jeff – Really enjoyed this post. The “stories that aren’t being told” as you put it are at the heart of greenwashing and at the heart of what public relations represents at its most subtly coercive. Greenwashing changes what “truth” gets illuminated and which “truth” gets obscured. An example would be a recent AP story I found in the Kansas City Star last week on the reestablishment of the endangered chestnut tree on Knoxville, Tennessee’s Zeb Mountain. This sounds like a great idea until you realize this land is available for tree planting only because its mountain top has been blasted off. Better yet, two of the people involved in the planting itself are representatives of the coal and strip mining industry. So instead of thinking “why are you blasting off mountain tops?” we are thinking “wow, look at the coal industry helping out the environment!”. The truth has changed on us. I remember thinking this was a classic greenwash when I read it in the Star. Some of the folks in Knoxville agree. Check out the story and some of the comments posted here:


-Vince Meserko

Comment by vincemeserko

Sorry Jeff, I feel I must dispute your choice to preserve your child’s bowel movements in the archaeological record. YMMV but it wasn’t all that much effort for me to set up a diaper bucket system when I chose that route. (I mostly wanted the old diapers for my rag collection upon their retirement.) My secret was to empty and sanitize the whole system DAILY (about 15 minutes) to prevent septic build-up, which is where the real odors come from. I think I can spare everyone the finer details, but I had a strict protocol for safety. Also I chose not to use Chlorine products, but did use a bit of Phosphates in the cleaning process. As to the point of your concern, I couldn’t begin to justify my impact on the world to others, just think and do what you can so you can live with yourself. I always question myself when I accuse another, i.e. Chevron, Monsanto… AFAICT Humans will destroy the biome and you nor I can affect that outcome. I do recycle, and vote, &c., as if that mattered.

Comment by Steven

Steven – As we prepare for our first born, I’ve found myself questioning my own actions more and more. With the “great diaper debate”, it is difficult to find studies that aren’t biased one way or the other or accurately represent what truly happens in the home. Cloth, disposable, and hybrids like the gDiapers all have their negative environmental impacts. It sounds like you found a great way to deal with the issue – environmentally and otherwise. I think I’ve just chosen to focus my efforts on reducing elsewhere instead of trying to figure out which is the least detrimental.

You say we have to what we can on an individual basis to “live with yourself” because we can’t stop the destruction. Do you not have even a little hope that our individual actions and engaging in conversations like this can build towards collective change?


Comment by jseverin

Vince – At least the author has pointed out the environmental impacts of this type of mining, albeit briefly. When companies aren’t willing to report the bad with the good, it is left to journalists to tell that part of the story. Does that approach compromise a journalist’s opportunity to tell any part of the story (and is there anything wrong with that if it means a total greenwash doesn’t get news coverage)?


Comment by jseverin


Great post. I don’t think it’s fair to say you are greenwashing. You are doing everything you can to green your home, your life and your mind. But I understand your point—why am I so forgiving to you, but skeptical of corporations?

We can’t just overhaul our lives overnight and be re-born green. Maybe we should back off of the pessimism and applaud the efforts of those who choose to go green…maybe it’s a matter of measuring green, as Sarah H. has suggested in class before, for big companies.

After all, are you going to refuse non-organic baby clothes from your third cousin, or will you graciously accept them? Did Burt’s Bees refuse Clorox, or did they get all utilitarian on us and strive for the greater good—a larger eco-message, with the help of bleach money—to further the movement?

I guess we know what they did.


Comment by kimwallace

If we hold companies up to a prolonged measure of greenness, then we have to do the same for consumers. I am all for disclosure from all parties. And I think you are doing an amazing job, Jeff. Look at the green glass half-full once in a while, ok?

Comment by j500

Maybe the glass got smudged with some green body paint, but I was moving towards looking at it as being half-full with this post. I think we can all be too hard on ourselves and on businesses that are legitimately trying to make a difference and need to celebrate those successes. For me, it is all about making progress.

– Jeff

Comment by jseverin

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