Is this whole sustainability thing just one big greenwash?


I n my search for the eco-warriors of the North Bay and beyond, some things have been brought to my attention regarding the sometimes hazy nature of what exactly it means to be green. The first is that there is not a 100 percent way to be green that does not include killing oneself. We can make positive changes for the environment, but shopping, eating, moving, creating, building all have impacts, and these impacts cannot be negated by recycling and using biodegradable to-go containers. The second is that the concept of “going green” is becoming popular in ways that make me suspicious.

When I hear through the greenvine that Wal-Mart is going to be remodeling its stores in order to attract environmentally oriented shoppers, I know that I have some investigating to do. If Wal-Mart thinks consumers are so easily duped as to be lured into a big-box store with a recycle bin and some carefully placed “natural” products, then the world of green is definitely getting muddied.

In order to get a firmer grasp on what it means to be sustainable and how we as consumers fit into the definition, I contact John Garn, a highly recommended environmental consultant. Garn, who has a powerful track record for helping businesses and cities green up, is the creator of Community Pulse (, a website that tracks Sonoma County’s monthly use of energy, water, waste and carbon dioxide emissions. He considers himself to be a guide for businesses on their way to sustainability, and though I have no intention of starting a business, guide me he does.

The problem begins with the word “sustainable,” Garn cautions. What does it mean? People throw it around the way they throw around the word “natural,” but as long as there are no regulations in place to define “sustainable,” then things labeled as such don’t have to be sustainable at all. Sustainability is a continuous process; you can’t simply call something “sustainable” and expect it to save the species from extinction.

Garn suggests we think of sustainability as a needle on a compass indicating how close we are to our destination as a culture that perpetuates life. Even if we do pay attention to the compass, he cautions, “How can we expect to be a sustainable culture inside an economy that is not sustainable, because it is based on growth and consumption?” As long as we associate conservation with sacrifice, we will be stuck in what Garn and I begin to refer to during our conversation as “the Prius model of sustainability.”

This type of greening, Garn warns, is not sustainable, not only because it is directly connected to affluence, but because it is still a result of consumerism. The carbon footprint involved in putting together that Prius, Garn tells me, will never during the life of the car be offset, no matter how low its emissions. This reminds me of a term I recently added to my lexicon, which I share with Garn: “eco-apartheid,” where ecological well-being is only available to those who can afford it.

Garn rejoins with an anecdote about a local 7,500-square-foot straw bale home, chalk full of green gadgets and materials but inhabited by just two people. How is this sustainable? If every couple were to enjoy their own 7,500-square-foot straw bale home, we would need to enforce mass sterilization or colonize the moon.

The dreaded solution to creating true sustainability is simple: consume less, consume local. Organic strawberries from Chile in January? Don’t buy them. Mineral water from Germany? Just say no. Buy a used car, a small house. We, as consumers and planet dwellers, have to create a demand for real green processes and not be satisfied with a sticker that says “Sustainable” with no evidence whatsoever to back it up.

In order to get past the greenwashing, and to the truth of the matter, Garn recommends reading the “Six Sins” report, which artfully describes the six most common false claims of sustainability, such as the sin of the hidden trade-off and the sin of vagueness. He also cautions against “ecomania,” the false perception that we are as green as we can be. We need to stop “solarizing our efficiency,” he says, referring to the phenomenon where a few solar panels are installed because they make a business “look green,” while few moves are made to actually minimize energy use within the building.

Until we stop seeing conservation as something that goes against the American way of life, then all this talk of going green will lead nowhere. After all, the United States holds 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet we consume 29 percent of the world’s resources. How, Garn asks me, loosely defined as the word may be, can this possibly be sustainable?

To download the ‘Six Sins’ report, go to [ ]