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The Green Lie: Greenwashing and what to do about it

http://www.thegreenlie.at/

Hey everybody,

yesterday I was lucky to watch the documentary The Green Lie followed by a discussion with the director and protagonist Werner Boote.

In his film he contradicts that we as individuals can change the system with our buying decisions. The acadamic Raj Patel says the following in the documentary (not word by word):

This quote inspired me to change my view a little bit. Indeed, companies should not emburden us with the decision between bad products and good products. There should only be good products because the alternative are products that exploit people and nature!

And we cannot even blame managers because their task is to maximize their company’s profit. In the end it boils down to strong global regulations. We as citizens (let’s not have them label us “consumers”) need to demand regulations from our politicians.

We should not have to make that decision!* We should be able to be confident that what we buy is good!

So I’m asking what you think about this topic in general, and what your ideas are for making strong regulations a reality?

Best, Stefan

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I have the very strong feeling, that trying to regulate the world in a way that everything we can buy is good, is not gonna happen and more important never can happen. That’s for quite a few reasons:

  • If you want to buy “good” things only, you have to define what’s “good”. Just asking all the users here in the forum will aleady result in numerous definitions, although you will have asked “fair” (another vague term) oriented people only.
    You will have to compromise and find a way to balance the varying and differing interests.
  • Taking a look at the Fairphone story, the blog entries and the huge amount of global factors that need to be considered, I wonder who will even try to start writing down all the necessary rules. Just for one product or group of products you will end up writing a library, as there are way more things to be considered than comes to mind in the first instant.
  • Regulation needs to be consistent and without loopholes, which is that much harder and the less likely to achieve, the more complicated the regulation becomes.

Already now there are attempts to do good by tightening the regulations like limiting the power-consumption of vacuum-cleaners, banning (old) light-bulbs, setting limits for emission (e.g. for diesel cars), promoting and stimulating renewable energy.
For all of these examples - if you look them up - you will find heated discussions regarding the sense and necessity of those regulations. Loosing freedom to choose is just one of the complaints (btw. to me the most unreasonable of all arguments, demanding a choice to pollute the environment).

Another problem is, that the things we consider good right now might turn out to be bad or even devastating later. A few years ago it was state of the art, being support by subvention to insulate each and every house.
Nowadays the hype seems to be kind of over, as lots of those insulated houses have (heavy) problems with mould, the insulation might be inflammable and consist of plastics, that can’t be recycled, if they don’t even have worse impact on the environment.
It shows that old houses kind of need some ventilation by doors and windows that are not closing tight.

Well, that’s just a few initial thoughts that I had, when reading your questions. All the global problems and the (in case of strict regulations) emerging competition/industry for finding loopholes etc. will have to be considered as well.

And as an afterthought, I don’t think that we will or should ever be spared from deciding on our own and from having to stand and be “judged” by our decisions. There will always be our responsibility, however tight regulations become.

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Thank you for your thoughts!

Raj Patel argues that people are overwhelmed with information (and certifications) and that the society should not demand that level of information from its citizens. Many people simply don’t have the time and others don’t want to spend time on sucking up all the information that’s around. Another problem is that with Greenwashing you never know, which information is correct and which is fake.

Noam Chomsky argues that if someone had told you about public democracy in the 16th century you would not have believed it. A responsible economy is not a question of time, however, but one of people uniting and fighting for it.

There is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think a starting point might be to make it enforceable on a global scale via the International Court of Justice in Den Haag.

As an educated, relatively well off person person I can definitely follow and appreciate this line of reasoning, but… An easy to overlook factor in the debate is the fact that a lot of households are struggling to make ends meet. After subtracting mortgage or rent, utilities and other bills, many people find that they have the means to afford bastard coffee, but not fairtrade. Removing bastard products from supermarkets and stores alike will thus have the effect of lowering many people’s living standards in the developed world, which you’ll find can lead to a lot of backlash.

It’s also the unfortunate reality that the people on the tightest budgets have more trouble getting satisfaction out of their lives, making them more vulnerable to what we’d perceive as the bad (but immediately satisfying) life choices like smoking, drinking, gambling… Again, taking that away will lead to the perception of lower life quality, but in this case careful education can help people not fall for these traps that life has laid out for us - hopefully generating a slightly more relaxed financial situation for more that can let people make conscious decisions about their spending.

To summarise: as long as everyone in the Western world wants to maintain their standard of living, I don’t believe we can force fairer practices on people. Certification and choice I believe is the next best step on the path to fairer economics, with a significantly higher acceptance in society.

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Just a small replica: I think we don’t have to. In my opinion it’s about “forcing fairer practices” on companies. I think that people don’t want to buy products that harm other people and the environment. It is marketing that creates an illusion that makes them buy those products - not because it is good for them or anyone, but it is good for the company’s profit.

PS.: Raj Patel states that a pack of Pringles would be 4-5 times more expensive if it were produced in a “good” way.

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I don’t believe it’s fair to blame marketing alone, (unless we blur the lines between marketing and product development). Something about these products gives people satisfaction, whether it’s taste, functionality or aesthetics. Without satisfaction, you would not have a returning customer regardless of how well you market it.

If you ask people on the streets I’m sure that your assessment of ‘not wanting to buy unfair products’ is accurate. However, people have the tendency of prioritising the well-being of themselves and those close to them over those they don’t know. In practice, many people are very willing to turn a blind eye on fairness if they perceive a loss in life quality. Note the word perceive: marketing is one of the influences on this perception, but certainly not the only one. If welfare of every human being on the planet was the top priority for everybody, nobody would buy anything but organic meat and fairtrade coffee. The fact that their market shares in their product groups are lower than 10% are testament to the problem being more complex than that.

Edit: re-reading it I feel like it sounds I’m dancing around the argument that we need to force companies to change their practices rather than individuals. My counter-argument is that either way the citizen will need to foot the bill for fairer economics, and we’d be a lot better off easing people into this mind-set by means of choice and education, giving those who have the headroom for fair consumption a sense of pride in their contribution, rather than forcing down the bitter pill of reduced purchasing power onto everyone in one go. It boils down to evolution vs. revolution really, and I tend to side with the evolution camp.

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I think, many people want to by CHEAP. Be it, because Marketing made them believe, they need this product, or just because they actually need, but cannot afford fairtrade and organic.

I just wonder, that sometimes people get surprised to not have gotten the best quality product (or the best way to produce it), although it was incredibly cheap, just because marketing has made them believe they would buy the best product available on the market.

If people would care more about creation of the products they buy and the outcome of this production, then we would have less environmental issues. But why do people seem not to care so much? Is it because of lack of time? Or because of lack of interest? Or because they think, they cannot move anything?

Actually I have already spoken to several people, each one with thoughts in one of these categories and found it hard to convice them to move together to a better world.

Companies want to make as much profit as they can. So it is better to not care much about consequences as long as the production is most profitable. Otherwise company A is less profitable than company B which results in lower stocks. Therefore certain limits are needed which must not be gone below. These limits usually come from politics who hardly care about environment and we see how difficult it is to find a limit for just anything not even talking about eco-balance.

It was nice if companies would get these limits from people buying or not buying there goods - for which we re-start from beginnning of my article.

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I agree, people want cheap.
They might agree to pay more if they know it’s better quality, but they think usually more expensive means they get the same product, someone just earns more.
And headlines articles like the one above make them believe “good” products don’t exist anyway and all green/fair/eco/… is a lie, so they are not willing to pay more for it because they don’t want to get the same and have a liar earn more.
And the reason why people believe cheap is their best option: marketing.
If a company that sells products that cost practically nothing has millions to put into fancy ad campaigns then most people will buy from them.

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Just a short note (as I am on the go): Cheap is not mandatory, as Apple is proving since years.

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But not quite why you think it is ;-). Marketing has consistently made people promises about products that they just couldn’t keep. Who in NL remembers the endless stream of Tel Sell commercials on morning telly? Mascara that gives you three times more hair on your eyelids? Not to mention Aldi/Lidl washing powders consistently out-performing the big brands according to consumer associations. For a while, people bought the promises and the products, people got disappointed, and now people stop believing in the stories.
Today’s mentality is very much “we’re buying shit anyway, might as well get cheap unbranded shit because that’ll save us the cost of marketing”. Nobody is convinced about quality differences any longer, expensive stuff breaks just as quickly as cheap stuff, tastes just as good and cleans equally well. The higher price is perceived as solely for marketing or for aesthetics, two factors that don’t bring additional functional value to the table.

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From a market theory perspective, prices should go down for “good” products if there was no competition from “bad” products anymore, am I right?

Another point I want to mention: People in a supermarket can hardly validate whether a product is really “good” or whether it is greenwashed. You need to actually go to i.e. the cocoa plantation to see the working practices. How can I ever be sure about a product being “good” if it is not enforced to be “good” by the government?

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It’s actually quite an interesting question how the ‘economy of scale’ works for fair economics. Being fair means deliberately not using those efficiency-improving techniques if they lead to unethical practices (like below-minimum wage labour from developing countries or high density mega-farms). As the market share of ‘fair’ vs non-fair tilts more towards fair, you’d expect prices to drop, but not to a point as low as the current non-ethical stuff. And that is assuming business practices will not involve ogliopolic behavour (which quite frankly I would label unfair as well…)

I think there is a role here for governmental(/EU wide) monitoring. And they do in some cases: there’s some very strict EU-wide requirements on animal welfare and use of chemicals to earn the label ‘organic’. Whether these rules require updating is an interesting question, but even without prohibition of unfair produce there is a role for the government to push the barrier further.

Unfortunately in very rare cases they do a proper job/investigation/supervision considering the “Fair” and “Organic” topic. But watching several documentaries in the close past like Marktcheck/Wiso/Frontal it is ridiculus how fuzzy things are controlled by EU regulation departments.
Very often when requirements were fullfilled once, e.g. a farm received its organic / fair certificate for production but may not be checked again for several years. So if things are starting to go wrong again it may take years for those EU control instances to find out and again time to react in a proper way.
Producers often don´t care too much about EU penalties as they know how they work and how long it may take until actions are taken.
Also there are sometimes criminal forces or corrupt governments behind so EU won´t start a war to get things going well again.
To withdraw a certificate obviously does not hold some parties off from going on with their fraudulent business.

It clearly looks like this to me if it comes to clothing from well known labels. Also it has been proven in the past that this business actually works that way (Clean Clothes Campaign).

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