J500 Media and the Environment

What Does “Green” Mean? by IanN
June 25, 2009, 6:55 am
Filed under: Energy + Climate, J840 Week 2 | Tags: , , ,

The word green is often used as an adjective for environmentally-friendly or as shorthand for the environmental movement. It is possible that the word green has been widely adopted because it doesn’t have the radicalism associated with the environmental movement (especially in the 1970s but also with groups like Earth First and the Earth Liberation Party).

In the U.S., the term “green” has largely become a marketing term, in the sense that it is mostly used to sell products and ideas. However, this is not a necessarily a bad thing, especially in a consumerist culture like the U.S, where we express our personalities often through what we purchase. Therefore, defining products as green might be a pragmatic approach to some of our environmental problems, because, increasingly, many consumers self-identify as “green.” Marketers are also realizing that labeling things green helps move their products off the shelf.  According to an article in Brandweek magazine, a national survey “found that a product’s ‘energy footprint’  influences 77 percent for consumers’ purchasing decisions, with 76 percent willing to pay more at the register for environmentally-friendly products.” Aaron Franklin, project director at study sponsor ORC Guideline , issued a statement saying, “The study’s findings seem to debunk a common perception that people will go green as long as it doesn’t cost them. In fact …people seem to be willing to put their money where their values are.”  The danger in this is that the term “green” risks being co-opted and abused to near meaninglessness.


I agree with Thomas L. Friedman that being green means being patriotic. In an April 15, 2007 piece in The New York Times Magazine, Friedman wrote, “I want to rename ‘green.’ I want to rename it geo-strategic, geo-economic, capitalistic and patriotic. I want to do that because I think that living, working, designing, manufacturing, and projecting America in a green way can be the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century. A redefined, broader and more muscular green ideology is not meant to trump the traditional Republican and Democratic agendas but rather to bridge them when it comes to addressing the three major issues facing every American today: jobs, temperature, and terrorism.” (As a side note, terrorism is also partially abetted by oil profits. This presents a much more immediate threat to some than global warming.)

Encouragingly, everyday there are signs of more and more convergence in terms of disparate interest groups, such as large corporations, environmental groups, and consumers, coming together to address environmental problems in practical, less radical, and even profitable ways. However, Americans tend to have short attention spans.

— Ian Nyquist


4 Comments so far
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The research study quoted in the Brandweek article says they surveyed “private households.” I wonder what that means? Single family homes? What is the affluence level of a “private household?” It really is bothering me what that means, ask it could skew the results of the study.

Being a new grandmother, I have had the chance to cruise the diaper aisle at Target quite frequently lately. My daughter, who is a single mother and lives with us, would never be able to afford the $12 green diapers when she can buy diapers as low as $5 or $6 per package. Heck, I wouldn’t either. And cloth diapers only present a different set of green conundrums with detergent, water and sanitation considerations.

In our conference call with Christie Heimert of Seventh Generation, she did say that quality and price point are coming more in line with their competition on their cleaning products. In my survey of the cleaning aisle at Target last night, I was finding that their products are still 10-15% more than their traditional counterparts. Those prices are more along the lines where I would consider trying them next time I need to replenish my supply. Not sure that a single mom struggling for every penny would be able to.

Comment by cindyol

Hi Cindy,
The article was vague on the demographics of the survey respondents, but researchers on the up-and-up usually do try to find a representative sample of the population. Also, as you pointed out, the article didn’t mention how much more consumers were willing to pay. I am sure there is a pain point. The difference between 50% more or 10% more or most items would be pretty drastic. I think costs are coming down partially due to scale, as consumers and companies become more interested in these products, the more they can produce. The more they can produce, the less it costs. Thanks for your comment!

Ian Nyquist

Comment by IanN

Again, more insight from The Chronicles of a Recycler: Over a decade ago, I decided to quit my job as a CTO of a large investment firm to do what I truly enjoy, which is environmental preservation and advocacy. Coming from a family that appreciates wilderness and nature, I felt the need to move forward with doing something to help our environment. This all started after seeing some footage a friend took in South East Asia which showed electronic waste being dumped in small villages overseas. Seeing how the practice polluted the water, food supply and how it made the local people sick really shocked me to say the least.

I decided to start by organizing e-waste events for a local county government agency, before the word e-waste was a real word. We helped collect and divert tens of millions of pounds of this material and made sure that it was handled and processed responsibly from start to finish. I have participated in operations to help stop illegal dumping of this waste and others in lower class neighborhoods and have petitioned to have regulations passed to stop industrial dumping in landfills in parts of California.

Almost twelve years ago, I gave up my comfy salary and office job so that I could dedicate my time and skills, full-time at little or sometimes no pay to doing what I know how to do and applied it to helping the environment. I did do it to be a better American and frankly I personally think that it doesn’t have anything to do with being patriotic. I think it has everything to do with being human, in general since it isn’t just up to America. This is the responsibility of everyone on the planet. I’m not trying to imply that everyone needs to be absolutely righteous but as a whole global society we could do so much more to help the future residences of this planet to make the world we share a better, healthier and livable place. Our existence on earth is like that of tenets in an apartment. The landlord refuses to give back a security deposit if the place isn’t in the same condition as it was before it was moved into.

Also, there is nothing more disheartening to me is to see all the corporate “green washing” brought forth by big companies, who are usually not interested any anything “green” but money. For example, I’ve been seeing a lot of banks advertising how green they are trying to be by providing statements online and offering paperless banking, etc. Sadly enough people don’t bother to question big industry and their marketing ploys. You don’t have to spend much time researching what a company does to be environmentally sound. You just need to use a little bit of common sense to question their motives.

I’ll leave this to be on a simple note pertaining to the apartment analogy. We are like tenants with a long-term lease. If we don’t respect the terms of the lease the landlord will kick us out.

Comment by Jakub Jakubik


I appreciate all that you have done for the planet. I love nature and the wilderness as much as anybody else. I go crazy if I can’t be outside for a long period of time. However, for me, it starts at home. Americans consume at least four times as many resources as any other population group on the planet.

Secondly, what messages or frames are going to move the conservatives so that we can reach a consensus on environmental issues and bring about real change? Finger-wagging probably won’t work. On the other hand, patriotism might appeal to many of those otherwise beyond reach of traditional green messaging. Further, environmentalists have been singing to the choir for over 40 years to little affect. Frankly, the environmental movement has been politically impotent and out-maneuvered by industrial lobbyists and politicians since its inception until recently. Ask yourself why this is. Regardless of their motives, many companies are trying to be more environmentally conscious in their operations and also in the products they sell. Many of those that haven’t, like Hummer and Pontiac, no longer exist.

Thanks so much for your comment.

Comment by IanN

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