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Colorblind Environmentalist: when green raises red flags

I just walked out of Natural Products Expo East. It’s a wonderful 3 day event in Boston, Ma that sets retailers, distributors and manufactures up with each other in the hopes that we all find a harmonious balance of selling, buying, and producing. Three things that Lloyd Dobler wanted nothing to do with back in the early 90’s. It’s no wonder. The business of selling, buying and producing is sneaky business EVEN in the harmonious natural living world. Maybe it’s even sneakier in this realm because we are ardent fans. When we find something that is marketed to us and fulfills our stringent list of demands, or so we hope, we tell all of our friends. We buy each of our friends one, we push for local stores to carry it. We act as an unpaid spokesperson…. Gleefully touting the benefits to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, sometimes fine print gets by OR maybe a company finds someone that only knows the surface points of the green movement. To these folks; Recyclable or Reusable is enough. Natural or Organic are enough. If it says Eco or Green… they TRUST the company behind the statement. Why would the company mislead. Perhaps the company doesn’t realize that their “green” product is less sustainable than the commercially available conventional product. Perhaps the consumer dollars are more important than full disclosure.

Case in point. Two candle companies at the show claimed to be environmentally friendly. One company stands behind their claims in all of their marketing, on their website and in their actions. This will be Company A. The other makes vague references to being green but the website doesn’t disclose what actions they take and the sales team talks circles when asked; Company B.

Company A: Product is free of parabens, propylene glycol, phthalates and lead wicks. Ingredients are listed on product and website. Packaging is both recyclable and made with recycled content and the company reuses and reduces wherever possible, regularly reevaluating processes to maximize this effort. The company is working towards carbon neutrality and is 100% committed to cruelty-freedom. They do not use any animal ingredients, including beeswax, and does not test its formulations on animals or use ingredients that are currently tested on animals. This information is easy to obtain, it is listed in all of their sales literature, on their website and lived by their spokespeople. I made mention that for a company so committed to the environment, I was intrigued that they kept a sandalwood product in rotation, as sandalwood is at risk for depletion if it is continued to be used in high quantities. The salesperson smiled when I mentioned this. They are so committed to overall sustainability that the founder, who loves sandalwood and does not wish to see it depleted, uses a layering effect in her sandalwood products to create a strong sandalwood scent with only the smallest amount. The other oils she adds help to mimic and reinforce the sandalwood odor. Sure, it’s more complicated but it’s also more environmentally responsible.

Company B: This product uses handmade paper labels that are screen printed with traditional inks. The website makes one reference to its dedication to protecting the environment in a statement of how it reuses its overflow wax. When asked at the show what makes the product environmentally friendly, the sales person responded that it was the use of natural products and that the glass jars could be recycled. Hopefully by now many of us are aware that sometimes “natural” is WORSE than synthetic. The website does not declare ingredients, only because I asked at the show for documentation did I see that they use palm wax. I am aware that palm oil and wax are some of the most common “natural” ingredients in candles and soaps these days. The use of it as a home cooking vegetable oil is touted for lowering bad cholesterol and people love the idea of it for a bio-fuel. HOWEVER, as with anything that suddenly becomes quite popular, the financial gain of growing this product is hurting the environment. Such as the Bamboo Industry has negatively impacted the giant panda by reducing its food source, palm oil is raising havoc in the orangutan population. When I mentioned that I found it interesting that she used palm oil, she brushed me off and turned to talk to someone else. Moments earlier she had been quite interested in chatting me up about how great her products were. This would have been a great opportunity for her to try and convince me of why their use of palm oil was different.

This was just one case. There was the ubiquitous reusable eco-bag that is made from bleached cotton. Cotton is one of the most heavily pesticide laden crops grown. I saw flip flops from a PVC blend (phthalates anyone?!) BUT I also saw some amazing ones from natural rubber that were like walking on clouds! Everywhere I looked there were disposable (is creating more waste really green?!!) wipes made from a rayon/cotton blend in bags made from traditional plastics and printed with traditional inks. Sure, the packaging was pretty but just because the dog food has pictures of vegetables on the bag, doesn’t fool me into thinking there is anything resembling vegetables IN the bag. One company I met with does have an innovative approach to the wipe…they are using the wood pulp obtained as a waste product from mills. This wipe is compostable and degrades rather quickly. Their packaging is a unique polymer that also breaks down completely in 48 months. It oxo-degrades at first and then completely biodegrades shortly after that.

Overall, the green product trends I saw were heartening. There are some really amazing products coming out, one just needs to ask a lot of questions. If the company can not or will not provide the answers, be worrisome. They may in fact be hiding something that makes them less GREEN than you are looking for.

9 responses to “Colorblind Environmentalist: when green raises red flags”

  1. Avatar Mary Kate says:

    It is really amazing to me what people can get away with these days. Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to me to consider if what one company claims is true or not. Not that I’m naive, sometimes I just don’t put that much thought into it. Although, recently I have tried observing and learning about such products, being as my boyfriend tries to be highly eco-friendly and often yells at me when I’m not. 🙂 But it’s good, it helps me learn. Just as this article teaches me to really talk to people about items, read the packaging, do research, and consider how eco-friendly the item is before I actually purchase it. In the future, I will commit to trying to do my best on this.

    • Mary Kate,
      All we can all do is our best. There are some times when I get tricked by a clever tagline or marketing ploy and then I find myself growling cause I should know better. It is my JOB to know better BUT it looked, sounded, felt so so right.
      Our dollars are our strongest weapons. We vote with them everyday. Just make sure that your vote is going towards what you believe in. That’s all we can hope for.
      Tell your boyfriend to be easy on you or you will never let him live down his un-eco transgressions! Ha Ha Ha.

    • Avatar Jordan Skinner says:

      I found this post really interesting. Sort of a tale of two of companies trying to say that there product is green and eco friendly and the other pretending to be. Company A proved that their products were eco friendly with documentation and all the ingredients they use. Obviously they had nothing to hide. But Company B seemed to be more interested in trying to take advantage of gullible customers who trying to find “green” products. Heck why would a company lie or deceive the consumer? Well Company B is more interested in making green and that’s money. It’s bad business ethics to deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something that’s supposed to be green and eco friendly. That’s why Company B won’t last very long and Company a now is in good standing with its consumers who will end up telling their friends to buy products from them. So Company A proved you could have great green ethics and be a profitable business.

  2. Avatar Eric Benson says:

    Okay, so you say that just because a company doesn’t give you all the answers makes it “greenly” unethical. I don’t know what kind of expo this was, but as far as I’m concerned, a lot of people are all gathered in one place, for one purpose at an expo. Company B sounds like the worse of the two options here, but what makes company A the lesser of the two evils. The effort the publisher took to gather this information leads me to (probably wrongfully) assume they’re pretty interested in going green. Just the fact this is a green expo leads the “bad” companies to be sectioned off. You can ask all the questions you want, gather all the information you want, but in the end what makes it green is whether or not the consumer believes it. Natural isn’t always green, green isn’t always natural?

    • Eric,
      If a company is going to be attending an event geared towards “Natural Products” buyers and manufacturers; I do believe they should be able to answer my any of our questions, yes. A company should be able to stand behind any claim it makes and explain it’s decision to do or use certain things. If they would like the consumer to stand behind their product, they should be able to as well.
      I chose not to identify any of the companies because I don’t support any one business over any other as the perfect choice for everyone. Whomever someone chooses to buy from, is their own personal choice. I know what my needs are as a consumer and they probably differ from many of you. In some cases more stringent in a certain area and in some, less stringent in another.
      Your final sentence nails the point though…. “Natural isn’t always green, green isn’t always natural?” That is true. That is why it is important to decide what you need from the product and ask those questions. DON’T let the marketing sell you on the product, let the answers. Ask yourself this. If you were blind and couldn’t see the packaging…. what questions would you ask?

  3. Avatar Chris Erickson says:

    I have one problem, and one problem only with this post. I appreciate the fact that someone is trying to spread the idea of what it really means to “go green” to people, and I also like the fact that this is semi-eye opening. However, i do get this sense that the author likes to look down her nose at people who do not do as she does. I, for example, love to help the environment. Don’t ask me how, because I am not totally sure. I recycle where I can, I try not to buy shitty plastic products, and there are plenty of other things i do. Oh, i also refuse to support agriculture that uses pesticides and hormones. CSA all the way for me my friends. But, does it mean i am a bad person if i do not observe “Greenology” to perfection? No. I’m not perfect. Shit, something like 99% of the world is not perfect (and if the 1% of perfection is reading this, what’s up?). SO why do you have to make me feel like I am a bad person because I do not buy products with completely reusable packaging? I buy my dog healthy, organic food, but now i feel like that isn’t good enough, and so I must be a bad dog owner. Our value systems are different, Author. And I appreciate the work you are doing. But please, next time, don’t belittle me into joining your cause. Inform me, ask me, and educate me. It will go much further.

    • Chris,
      I am interested in hearing how you considered my article to be a slam/ belittlement on you and the individual eco-minded consumer rather than a comment on the INDUSTRY and how some companies like to slide in under false pretenses. My point in this article was that one shouldn’t make false claims or avoid the questions. I attended as a buyer. My purpose was to find products that are as sustainable as possible so that MY customers don’t need to second guess. I go above and beyond for my business because my customers expect me to. They vary in their intensity and commitment to the green lifestyle and because of this…I MUST ask all the questions and nit pick down to the very smallest of details…not because I am better than anyone but because it is my job to have the answer if someone asks what the “cost” is of something.
      No, none of us are perfect…. the key is to do the best you can. Some days will be better than others. I buy from Starbucks… is it the best alternative, no. But it’s better than others. I choose to home cook for my dog in the summer because of the local produce and feed a commercial raw in the winter. Is my choice the best? For my particular dog and my particular life, it is.
      The point to all of this is simple. Determine what your answers need to be and ask those questions of companies, individuals, communities, etc…. so that you can live the best that you can. I am not asking you as an individual to answer to anyone. Do the best you can for yourself, your pet, your community and your earth and you will have a sense of pride knowing that you are part of something bigger. Whatever that is for you. It’s not about one upping each other.
      It is however about corporate responsibility. A business is responsible for standing up and stating what it stands for and being able to back up those claims. Don’t lie to us with marketing ploys and pr stunts. Don’t insult us or ignore us. The point of this post is to remain educated. Decide what YOU need and ask those questions.
      BTW, thanks for doing CSA! I have a bunch of friends who are farmers and CSA is super important to them!!!!!

    • Avatar Adam Starr says:

      Chris, only you can decide if you're a (as you put it) "bad person". If you buy a product that causes pain or destruction somewhere in the world, that's just a fact. It's up to you to decide what type of person your choices make you. Where Michele is simply setting out the facts, there's no necessary judgment occurring save what's going on between your own two ears. If you judge yourself harshly based on the outcomes you create, that's your own prerogative – and I would never myself say one can be too critical of one's own actions. But to harp on the article Michele wrote is like your brain castigating your eyes for what they see. The world is what it is – judge for yourself as to what kind of player you want to be in it.

      • Avatar llxt says:

        I think this there are relevant points both of you are making and I don't want to get in the middle (!)…but I think we all need to admit that anytime we "comment" on the world, we're making a judgment. Right?

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luckydogorganics About luckydogorganics

Michele Martin is the founder of the sustainably minded and holistically focused pet business www.luckydogorganics.com. She is committed to educating people about the true “cost” of things and firmly believes that sometimes you “spend” alot more when you save those few dollars. Michele enjoys hanging with her boxer Bella and eating gluten-free goodies while obsessing over Twitter.

Read more by this author on 30POV .


December 2009
Season Finale
November 2009
{Seven Deadly} Sins
October 2009
Mischief Making
September 2009
Green Ethics
August 2009