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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Earth Day 2021 – ‘Greenwashing’ and balancing priorities

Earth Day’s organizers at earthday.org claim it “is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national and local policy changes.”

If Earth Day was a religion, it would be third, just ahead of Hinduism and behind Islam, a distant second after the 2 billion-plus Christians worldwide.

Earth Day adherents range in intensity from those with a deeply internalized faith to the trendy followers easily suckered in by “greenwashing.” Or to put it in religious terms, from Mother Theresa to the culturally observant, with a whole lot of folks somewhere in the middle.

Greenwashing is a word first used in 1986 to describe practices or products which sound environmentally friendly until you dig in. A takeout container marketed as compostable isn’t any greener than Styrofoam if they both end up in the same landfill, or if the green option requires more resources or more energy to produce and ship.

When the first Earth Day was declared in 1970 in the United States, it was the year after the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland had infamously caught fire for the 13th time in a hundred years. Industrial smokestacks still belched smoke instead of water vapor. There was no Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act. What is now Spokane’s Riverfront Park was a regional railroad hub with two competing passenger stations, multiple tracks and the rest covered by parking lots and commercial buildings. The Spokane River could barely be seen through the bridge railings while driving across town.

Expo ’74, the International Exposition on the Environment, changed all that by converting an industrial landscape into the heart of the city. It was spearheaded by local business leaders who saw the potential to enhance downtown. But it would not have happened without a bit of judicious greenwashing.

A century of industrial uses left spills and contaminants spread across the site that is now Riverfront Park. The city of Spokane received three EPA cleanup grants to deal with contaminated soils beneath the surface of the park at Havermale Island, Canada Island and on the North Bank. The park is not and has never been dangerous. While there’s no doubt planners at the time knew about the potential soil contamination, there wasn’t the same awareness or concern that we take for granted today. And so the Expo ‘74 developers essentially greenwashed a contaminated brownfield in the name of promoting environmental awareness. They didn’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible, or the pretty darn good.

In 1990, Earth Day’s organizers went international and trendiness began to take over the marketplace. “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” were originally summarized in a series of reports from a Canadian environmental marketing company that has since been purchased by Underwriters Laboratories. UL is a little touchy about anyone using its list, an example of how trendiness starts to develop fiefdoms of power in both the private sector and public agencies. The principles, however, are public domain.

The first principle is knowing what trade-offs were made in the production of a product. Were those organic carrots grown with care for a healthy soil ecosystem, or does that label just mean certain chemicals were avoided?

The only way to feel confident the label means what it says is to have proof, and lacking proof via competent third-party certification might be a sign of greenwashing.

Sometimes the claims are merely vague. “All natural” sounds green and safe and healthy until you remember that arsenic, mercury and lead are also all natural.

If you look closely at labels, you may find symbols that give the impression of an official endorsement, but are essentially the equivalent of asking five friends to write Yelp reviews for your new restaurant. They don’t mean anything.

Then there are the irrelevant claims, like “asbestos free” or “CFC Free,” when both have been banned from manufacturing for years. Or the claims for a green product, when the type of product itself would be problematic. When something becomes trendy, it attracts all sorts of hyperbole. Or outright lying. The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines for evaluating marketing claims that amount to greenwashing.

Cleaning up and being responsible stewards for the environment was a bipartisan movement, locally and nationally. Those values are still shared across party lines even if we disagree on the ways, the means and the trade-offs.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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