Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What’s Greener than Green? Brown.

by Derek Markham

Sycamore Leaf

Scores of new products hit the market every single day, and a great many of them are being sold as ‘green’. We see it everywhere – “Our new Widget is ‘eco-friendly’ (or ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘good for the environment’, etc.)”.

But just how green are they? Can something made from brand new materials really be green? If a product is an upgrade from an older version, are we being green by buying it? Or is it better for the environment to simply use what we have or to do without?

I think about the mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and see that for most of us, the recycle message is the one that gets used (and abused) the most. Let’s start there and work our way backward.


If you check just about any packaging these days, it’s probably got a recycle code on the bottom, which means that if there are facilities, and there’s a buyer, and we manage to sort our trash correctly, then the product is potentially recycleable. It doesn’t mean that it will be recycled into something new, and it doesn’t mean that it’s made from recycled materials. However, at first glance, it appears to be telling us that.

Products that are labeled “Made from recycled materials” can be just as suspect. What’s the real value in labelling something as containing recycled materials, especially if it’s only a small percentage? The real value there is to the marketing department, and maybe a ‘feel-good’ value for the consumer, because for the most part, it’s a ploy. Don’t get me wrong here, as I’m not putting down the businesses that truly put an effort into using recycled materials. I just have an issue with the greenwashing of products by touting their recycled content.

Many consumer goods don’t need all of the packaging. Companies need the packaging in order to try to sell us on the products. And if a product is really useful, and really good, then the less advertising is necessary on the product, right?


The greenest product is one that already exists. I call it ‘brown‘. It’s the stuff you already own, the stuff that still works or can be repaired. It’s the stuff readily available on eBay or Craigslist or at your local flea market or thrift store.

So why are we drawn to purchase new products? It seems to be related to the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mentality, the sexiness of new stuff when compared to our tired old things. I’m guilty of it, and most people that I know are guilty of it, and we talk ourselves into ‘needing’ to buy a new whatever, even when the one we have is perfectly useable.

In times of a tight economy, such as right now, doesn’t it make more sense to repair our current belongings or continue to use them instead of spending more money to replace them? Of course, many things manufactured these days are not repairable (file that under planned obsolescence), so when our plastic thingamabob breaks, we’re forced to either buy a new one, or do without (and we’re a society that doesn’t really like to do without…).

Our family loves going to yard sales and thrift stores when we need something, rather than heading to a store selling new goods first. Outfitting our rapidly growing kids in clothes can be terribly expensive if we’re always buying new, so we don’t. The one exception we make to this is with items like winter coats and boots, and sometimes shoes. We buy quality products that will last through the use of several kids, instead of buying the cheapest ones every year.


The virtue of using less, consuming less, and living more simply is almost a lost art. Imagine how creatively people live when they can’t purchase new goods anytime they want. Much of the world doesn’t have the luxury of cruising down to the local Mal-Wart and picking up the jumbo size pack of disposable widgets anytime they want (although perhaps they would like to be able to), but in America, we’re spoiled, so we consume huge amounts of the world’s resources for our ‘convenience’.

I’m not advocating living the life of complete austerity, but I do feel that many of the things we think we need are not necessary. For example, in our house, we never use or buy paper towels, even though we can get recycled content ones, because we really don’t need them. And dryer sheets – same thing. We never use disposable plates or cups, either. You can probably find a number of items on your shopping list that you really don’t need, and by not buying them, you’re not only reducing waste, you’re also saving money.

If we combine all of these - reduce, reuse, recycle – we can make a difference in our environment and in our world.

Image: Clearly Ambiguous at Flickr under CC License