The Business of Green

I had the opportunity to see Felicity Barringer, the New York Times correspondent, speak on the “The Dangers of Environmental Parables” at University of Wyoming’s Consumer Issues Conference. Barringer argued that simple parables, such as the greed-versus-good stories present in the seminal Silent Spring no longer capture the complex landscape of environmental issues presented today. She offered the example of the potential for wind power in the Alleghenies, which is opposed by an environmental NIMBY activist named Dan Boone who thinks that the broader environmental movement has perverse priorities. It’s no longer a matter of cutting corners to save money, environmental battles now involve complex choices. Is clean power more or less important than saving a beautiful landscape, birds, and bats from wind turbines?

Barringer is probably right about most environmental battles. But some still fit the old parables. I would argue that the speeding Chinese poison train, which this week features the addition of melamine to consumer products, is an example of the old style greed-versus-good parable. Melamine is being added to these products in order to make them appear to be more nutritious. This is not an accident or some complex decision concerning risk tolerance.

Barringer also discussed how the future of the green movement will be tied to making a business case for environmentalism. I think there is a lot of truth to this too, but I remain skeptical of business attempts to sell us on “green” items. So many products advertised as green have dubious credibility, but there are good resources to help sort things out.

My favorite example of a “green” option is the reusable shopping bag. Ellen Gamerman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

It’s manufactured in China, shipped thousands of miles overseas, made with plastic and could take years to decompose. It’s also the hot “green” giveaway of the moment: the reusable shopping bag.

It’s not all bad. Those reusable bags can save energy, if you reuse them. Otherwise, they take more resources to create, and to me, are another example of how we are manipulated into thinking that we are acting in a socially responsible manner. Back to Gamerman:

Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.


Some, such as the ones sold in Gristedes stores in New York that are printed with the slogan “I used to be a plastic bag,” are misleading. Those bags are also made in China from nonwoven polypropylene and have no recycled content. Stanley Joffe, president of Earthwise Bag Co., the Commerce, Calif., company that designed the bags, says the slogan is meant to point out that the bag itself is reusable, taking the place of a disposable plastic bag.

And what’s the business case for going green here?

[Stanford marketing professor Baba] Shiv…says that according to surveys done by his graduate students, many shoppers say they are less likely to carry a retailer’s branded reusable bag into a competing store. “What these bags are doing is increasing loyalty to the store,” he says.