The fact that it’s become increasingly fashionable in recent years for us to flex our eco credentials as well as our credit cards when making consumer choices is, of course, a good thing on the whole. As always though, there’s a flip side to this trend – and as ethical consumers, it’s one that we should all try to be mindful of.
Essentially, the more profit sellers can make by offering greener options, the higher the risk of us getting hoodwinked, or at least slightly misled. This isn’t news to anyone, of course: profitability tends to drive a dilution of quality or principles in almost any sector you can think of, and there’s no reason to think environmental consciousness would be immune to that.
But in an area as confusing as ‘eco-consumerism’ (generally rife with inherent contradictions at the best of times), how do we keep our environmentally friendly shopping and lifestyle choices on track? What steps can we take to avoid being led astray by dubious claims and ambiguous statistics put out by those looking to make a quick buck from our desire to protect our environment?
For most of us, the only realistic answer is to acknowledge that we’re not going to get it right every time. However, one thing we can all do is try to be aware of some of the most popular green claims out there, and know when a little scepticism is justified. Take the three commonly cited examples below, for starters – they all look great on a product label, but are they really as green as they’re painted?
1. Organic farming
Of course it’s true that, carrot by carrot, organic farming uses less energy, emits fewer greenhouse gasses, and leaches less nitrous oxide, ammonia, nitrogen and other toxins into the ground than intensively farming a typical commercial field does. If we’re only talking about your jar of organic peanut butter, then yes, it probably has a much lighter environmental footprint than the budget brand your neighbour buys. However, there’s a problem: lots of us are now buying the organic version.
Despite taking better care of the environment, organic farming is far less productive than non-organic methods – and so, as organic produce continues to rise in popularity, huge swathes of land are being devoted to it at much smaller production returns than we get from non-organic farms. The cumulative effect, unfortunately, is that keeping the organic supply chain running actually ends up emitting roughly the same levels of greenhouse gas as conventional farming, and creates about 10% more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification in total. The only way to make an immediate impact on the carbon footprint of your shopping basket, it seems, is to buy strictly local produce only – whether it’s organic or not.
Related Post: Divorcing the Big Supermarkets
2. Plastic recycling
Recycling in general helps protect the environment because it means we need to make less new stuff, therefore using fewer resources and creating less pollution. As far as basic green concepts go, it’s one of the simplest ones you’ll come across. However, plastics are very much a double-edged sword in this regard: while manufacturing new plastic goods does indeed have a very problematic environmental impact, so too does recycling our used ones.
Recycling plastics involves melting them down; not only does this use a significant amount of energy and thus increase carbon emissions, it also releases damaging levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere which are directly harmful to animal and plant life. Broadly speaking, recycling plastics is certainly the better of two evils – but a far more effective way to help the environment is to try to create as little waste plastic as you can.
Avoiding all unnecessary plastic bags, wrappers, disposable tablewares and the like is a simple step you can take to reduce your daily carbon footprint, and will have a far greater impact than even the most diligent recycling routine ever will.
Related Post: 20 Steps to Plastic-Free Living
Biofuels are often held up as a shining beacon of progress in the fightback against damage done by fossil fuels. Using biomass as fuel is often claimed to be a relatively carbon-neutral way to harness energy, since the plants grown to support the process will also help to absorb the emissions created by it. In reality, though, it’s not quite as balanced a transaction as we’re often led to believe.
New research suggests that the crops used for biofuels absorb only 37% of the CO2 later released when the plants are burnt. In short, the process still increases the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas surrounding our planet – it just does it slightly slower. By contrast, solar power is much cleaner, and delivers a far more efficient and eco-friendly energy payload per hectare of land devoted to it.
All the above examples, plus plenty more besides (bamboo fabrics, electric cars, LED lighting) are examined for their perceived green credentials versus their actual or potential impact on the environment in this smart little infographic.– if you’ve ever felt a tad suspicious about some of the more casually dropped eco claims out there, you might find it well worth a few minutes of your time.