Sustainably Speaking

by Mick Winter

Green is the New Chlorophyll

In the 1950s, the "chlorophyll" fad swept the United States. Everything was green. Chewing gum, toothpaste, deodorant, even dog food. The idea was that chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green color, would eliminate bad smells and, particularly, bad breath.

As do all fads, this fad ended, allegedly after a medical journal article pointed out that goats eat chlorophyll and that their breath is...well...not exactly fresh and sweet.

Now green is back, clad in a new consumer-attracting costume. Green for the Environment. Green for Save the Earth. Green products, green services, green actions. You can buy a green light bulb, a green car, or even a green house; buy green "carbon offsets" or green energy; or "be green" by recycling or by using your own shopping bag. Green is Good. Anything else is automatically bad.

There are books, articles and guides telling you how to "buy green". Basically you can buy your way into environmental heaven and continue consuming as much as you want as long as what you buy is "green". You can also drive as much as you want as long as you have a green car—at least a hybrid if not a full-electric.

Folks, that all feels good, and some of it can't hurt, but it ain't True Green. True Green is Less. Less driving. Less stuff. Less energy. You know what? It's even Less People, because the real problem on the planet is too many people using too much stuff. And most—but not all—of the people using way too much stuff are in this country. The American "ecological footprint" is five times the worldwide average, meaning we use five times the resources that the average earth-dwelling human does. (Only the United Arab Emirates is higher.) For everyone on the planet to consume at our level, we would need an estimated 5.5 planets.

So what do we do? We need to live "sustainably”, in a way that Webster's dictionary defines as "any lifestyle based on energy-saving and environmental responsibility." goes further, defining it as "a lifestyle that could, hypothetically, be sustained unmodified for many generations without exhausting any natural resources."

In fact, some say that sustainability is not enough. That what we need to do is go beyond sustainability and begin to restore the planet. This is presumably impossible to do with such resources as fossil fuels and minerals, but we can begin to restore our air, our water, our soil, and our communities.

Americans, and to a lesser extent most members of other developed countries, have an advantage in trying to live more sustainable lives. The reason? There is already a huge amount of excess in our lives. Excess energy use, excess water use, excess food use, excess stuff. We need to, and can, use less.

Using less isn't as bad as it sounds, because we can also do and enjoy more. We can walk and bicycle more, and become more healthy. We can grow more of our own food, saving more money and eating more nutritious and healthy food. We can spend more time with family and friends, and entertain ourselves and each other more. We can spend more time working and sharing with neighbors to create more cohesive, productive and rewarding communities. We can buy from locally-owned businesses, keeping more of our money in our communities to provide more benefit to all of us who live here.

We'll discuss this much more in future columns but for those of you who say "Yes, but I still have to buy things...", beware of Phony Green. Here are some valuable warnings—"The Six Sins of Greenwashing"—courtesy of TerraChoice (, a Canadian consulting firm.

The Six Sins of Greenwashing

Greenwash - the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off

Example: Paper (including household tissue, paper towel and copy paper): "Okay, this product comes from a sustainably harvested forest, but what are the impacts of its milling and transportation? Is the manufacturer also trying to reduce those impacts?" Emphasizing one environmental issue isn’t a problem. The problem arises when hiding a trade-off between environmental issues.

2. Sin of No Proof

Example: Personal care products (such as shampoos and conditioners) that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no evidence or certification of this claim. If they don't back up the claim, it probably isn't true.

3. Sin of Vagueness

Example: Garden insecticides promoted as "chemical-free." In fact, nothing is free of chemicals. All plants, animals, and humans are made of chemicals as are all of our products. If the marketing claim doesn’t explain itself, the claim is vague and meaningless. Watch for other popular vague green terms: "non-toxic", "all-natural", "environmentally-friendly", and "earth-friendly." And, of course, "green".

4. Sin of Irrelevance

Example: CFC-free oven cleaners, CFC-free shaving gels, CFC-free window cleaners, CFC-disinfectants. CFCs have been legally banned for almost 30 years. No products have them.

5. Sin of Fibbing

Example: Shampoos that claims to be "certified organic", but for which research can find no such certification.

6. Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils

Example: Organic tobacco. "Green" insecticides and herbicides. Is the claim trying to make consumers feel 'green' about a product category that is of questionable environmental benefit? Consumers concerned about the pollution associated with cigarettes would be better served by quitting smoking than by buying organic cigarettes. Similarly, consumers concerned about the human health and environmental risks of excessive use of lawn chemicals might create a bigger environmental benefit by reducing their use than by looking for greener alternatives.

Mick Winter is the publisher of the and the author of "Sustainable Living for Home, Neighborhood and Community", available from Westsong Publishing through local bookstores, and