Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Semantic Pedantic

The problem with "green" is that nobody really knows what it means to "be green". Sure, you drink fair-trade organic coffee. But shipping it from Nicaragua to New York isn't exactly environmentally friendly. Or what's it mean when a food product claims to use "all-natural flavoring"? Last I checked, flavoring isn't exactly a natural thing--it doesn't grow on trees.

This means that lots of companies can make claims to be green, which are only true in the most expansive sense of the word "true". Faking it is a bad idea no matter where you do it--on labels, in bed...

We should have, rather than "green", a letter grade (which can also be green, to match the ethos), sort of how appliances have letter grades for energy efficiency. I therefore propose a universal set of criteria, clearly defined, to determine just how "green" a product is. A lawnchair made of bamboo would be greener than the plastic counterpart, but not nearly so green as one that you build yourself out of scavenged lumber, for instance.

To lay out the criteria:

Sustainability: Is the product something that can be, with proper resource allocation, perpetuated for a lifetime? This covers things made from recycled goods that can be recycled, as well as materials that are grown. If your product, on the other hand, is mined (say, that granite sink) or comes from a forest that's not managed (say, some teak furniture), then it's not sustainable.

Distance: One of the biggest contributors to pollution is getting stuff from point A to point B. Obviously, the more local, the better. But a local artist who uses materials flown in from the ass-end of the world is, in this context, less green than buying grapes from California. It should not be the final product that takes primary consideration in terms of distance traveled, but the materials used.

Biodegradable/Recyclable: Self-explanatory. Except that it doesn't matter how recyclable a product is if there's nowhere to recycle it. A case in point: cans. I don't know of a single place that takes cans where I live. For most people, it's the plastics conundrum, where they live in a place that only takes 1 or 2 plastics.

Toxicity: Does this compound release substances that are known to have toxic effects?

Corporate commitment: Does the company implement strategies to reduce waste and consumption of resources? By what percentage?

If there are any other categories you can think of, let me know. Next post will be the points that are assigned to each of these categories for the grade--and that should be interesting.

1 comment:

Studd Beefpile said...

Distance is less of a factor than you think. Most long range transit is by sea, which means that is extremely fuel efficient. Often you'll use more energy getting to the store than the food used crossing the ocean. What really matters is method of transport, which is harder to find out.

The real issue is what to do when green goals directly conflict. Cars, for example, could be a lot more fuel efficient if they weren't required to have catalytic converters. Are the converters worth the cost? Who is to say?