Dear EarthTalk: I hear the term “greenwashing” a lot these days but am still not sure exactly what it means. Can you enlighten? — Ruth Markell, Indianapolis, IN
In essence, greenwashing involves falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations. CorpWatch, a non-profit dedicated to keeping tabs on the social responsibility (or lack thereof) of U.S.-based companies, characterizes greenwashing as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”
One of the groups leading the charge against greenwashing is Greenpeace.
“Corporations are falling all over themselves,” reports the group, “to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”
Greenpeace launched its Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 to call out bad actors and help consumers make better choices. The most common greenwashing strategy, the group says, is when a company touts an environmental program or product while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.
Another involves what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster”: using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual environmental problems — or spending more money bragging about green behavior than on actual deeds. In some cases, companies may boast about corporate green commitments while lobbying behind the scenes against environmental laws.
Greenpeace also urges vigilance about green claims that brag about something the law already requires: “For example, if an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”
For consumers, the best way to avoid getting “greenwashed” is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just trying to look that way to make more money. Look beyond advertising claims, read ingredient lists or ask employees about the real skinny on their company’s environmental commitment.
Also, look for labels that show a given offering has been vetted by a reliable third-party. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. Just because a label says “made with organic ingredients” or “all-natural” does not mean the product qualifies as Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the hype.
Even some eco-labels are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, look it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+ different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors. The free online resource provides information on which company or group is behind each certification and whether or not independent third-party assessments are required.
Dear EarthTalk: Now that hot weather is coming, I want to upgrade my home’s A/C. Which are the most energy-saving models and should I go central air or window units? — Jackie Smith, Cary, NC
According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), energy consumption for home air conditioning units accounts for more than 8 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S., at a cost to homeowners of $15 billion annually. Besides the cost, all this cooling leads to annual emissions of about 195 million tons of CO2 — or two tons per year for each American home with A/C.
Of course, foregoing A/C entirely is the most energy- and cost-efficient way to go, but some of us need a little cooling for comfort, especially in warmer climates. If A/C is a must, buying the most efficient model is the way to save money and pollute less. Fortunately, a new generation of much more efficient room and central A/C units means that upgrading will likely pay for itself in energy savings within just a few years.
The main factors to consider in choosing a new model are cooling capacity (measured in British Thermal Units, or BTUs) and Energy-Efficiency Ratio (EER). To determine the correct BTU rating for a given space, multiply the square footage by 10 and then add 4,000. Meanwhile, a given unit’s EER is the ratio of cooling output divided by power consumption — the higher the EER, the more efficient the air conditioner.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, national appliance standards require room air conditioners to have an EER of 8.0 to 9.8 or more, depending on type and capacity. Units with an EER rating of 10 or above typically qualify for the federal government’s Energy Star label, which appears on especially energy-efficient appliances. Check out the Energy Star website for lists of qualifying A/C models.
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) says that the average EER of room A/C units rose 47 percent from 1972 to 1991.
As to whether room units or central A/C makes more sense, it depends. Room units, which only cost a few hundred dollars each, will suffice for renters or those who only need to keep one or two rooms cool at a time. Meanwhile, central A/C is more efficient overall at keeping a whole house cool, and will also do a better job at reducing household humidity than even several individual room units — and will save more money faster on electricity bills. But with a starting price of around $4,000 for the condenser and initial set-up (plus any duct work needed to distribute cool air around a home), central A/C isn’t for everyone.
ACEEE points out that there are ways to keep indoor space cooler without A/C: improving insulation, sealing air gaps, getting rid of old appliances and light bulbs that give off lots of heat, running fans, using cooler colors on exterior roofing and paint, and other strategies. Those in particularly arid climates might also consider installing a swamp cooler (which cools outside air by running it over cold water) as a cheaper alternative to A/C. By following these suggestions and upgrading conscientiously, we can all stay a little more comfortable in our warming world without exacerbating the problem too much.