Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Taking the hit: not letting perfection get in the way of progress

By Travis Lee on January 11, 2009

Co-author, Scot Herbst

Recently, quite a few people have been asking me the same two questions: how do I feel about greenwashing and do I think we will see more or less greenwashing in the coming years? To which I usually respond that it depends on what they mean by greenwashing. Their definitions vary in the details, but they usually include two categories.

  1. The company that makes no sustainability efforts, but claims that they care about the environment more than we know.
  2. The company that releases a product and brags about the sustainability efforts involved in its creation, even when the product is not really sustainable.

The first category is obviously despicable, and companies that engage in that kind of blatant falsity are bound to soon be exposed for what they are by the increasingly educated and concerned consuming public.

The second category is the much more interesting. First, what makes a product really sustainable? One could argue that products in themselves will never be sustainable; that only complex systems of well designed products, take-back services, recycling infrastructure, and renewable energy generation can ever be a truly closed loop. And that the product, considered on its own, is doomed to always be an incomplete part of that loop. So can we blame a company for taking small steps toward making their product more eco-friendly (say, replacing all the polystyrene in their packaging with paper pulp) but not purchasing the renewable energy credits to offset its production footprint? Don’t we want to encourage that kind of behavior? Don’t we want to foster that kind of change?

Second, while I believe in the power of maintaining an idealistic goal for the future of sustainable design, I’m a pragmatist above all else. I understand that even if it seems like a disingenuous means to an end, the likeliest way to get to that future is by using the power of capitalism, marketing influence and all. And that means that if a company wants to remove the paint from their product and scream it from the rooftops in order to sell a few more units, more power too them, even if they take a hit every now and then for greenwashing. I’m not sure if we’ll see that more in the near future, but I hope so. That’s a little less paint in the world and a company that will be willing to take a slightly bigger step next time.