Green Is Dead, Long Live Green

It is time to rethink the language we use to describe efforts to improve our relationship with the environment. Below are the four reasons I believe we have entered a Post-Green, Post-Sustainability Era, and need a new meme:

  • Red or Black Only
    A price on carbon – whether in the US through ACES or internationally through COP15 – means that the discussion by businesses about “going green” becomes no longer exceptional (“hey, look what we did”), it becomes merely a requirement. Sustainability moves from the realm of marketing to the realm of bean counting and execution. Compliance to a regulatory framework for emissions means carbon is either a business asset or a liability, both of which impact the bottom line. Result: “Green” is folded into what business has historically been about – finishing the year in the Red or in the Black (and hedging against future shifts in the new currency of carbon). Similarly, strict compliance guidelines such as RoHS and WEEE also mean that making products more recyclable or less toxic is also taken out of the realm of marketing.

    Going into Copenhagen, the international discussion will officially shift from mitigating climate change to adapting to it. Species extinction, ocean acidification, the addition of 2.5 billion more people globally in the next 40 years are all clear signals of this shift. This trend represents a necessary shift in language. In the new world of adaptation, “green” and “sustainability” will be revealed for what they are: constructs that imply that by “going green” or touting “sustainable practices”, we are somehow going to end up with a world as we knew it. The fact, however, is that the only thing that will be sustained going forward is our penchant for being unsustainable. We are already in a world of adaptation, so talk of going green and sustaining is obsolete. Instead, what we’re looking at is “maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ll be able to achieve some level of ecological health that resembles what used to be”. But who wants to hear that message? So people will still sell green, and unfortunately others will continue to believe it exists.
  • “Y” Green is Yellowing
    There is also a generational shift. This blurb from Matt Bai in a recent NYTimes piece sums it up nicely: “In a sense, the gay rights movement of an earlier era was so successful in changing social attitudes that the movement itself can now seem obsolete, in the same way that younger Americans who have grown up with the premise of environmentalism in their daily lives consider Greenpeace to be a kind of hippie anachronism.” Point taken.
  • Green Splatter
    As writers like Joe Romm and Felicity Barringer have recently pointed out, “green” and “renewable” have a troubling elasticity to them, which has stripped the terms of any real meaning. Similarly, Dr. Andrew Dent has pointed out that “green” is not quantifiable because the data set is not quantified. Moving forward, specificity of language will be required to give meaning to action, so expect to see references to specific attributes such as recyclability, non-toxicity, low VOC, etc. Besides specificity, transparency and authenticity around product claims are about to be thrust upon businesses, which will push people away from empty platitudes. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its guidelines for green marketing claims with the goal of developing metrics that can be quantified. It should be noted here, however, that even this is far from full-proof, since the issue will ultimately be enforcement. The USGBC’s LEED rating system is proof of that, having recently come under fire for fostering “LEED-washing” – instances in which buildings claim and are often awarded LEED status, but don’t actually deliver the results.

The shift in semantics has started. Bill McKibben, the author of the “Death of Nature” and recently back from a trip to Australia, said at a recent event in Seattle that ministers Down Under are considering no longer using the term “drought”. The reason: drought implies that there is a beginning and an end to a water shortage, when the reality is that water shortages (in Australia and increasingly in other locations) are now endemic. The Economist hosted an interesting debate recently in which Stanford professor David Victor argued that sustainable development is “intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned”, in part because “its meaning has become fuzzier”. The person arguing for sustainability’s relevance, Peter Courtland Agre of Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, believes we can achieve sustainability because he is optimistic people will discover activism and change their behavior.

Unfortunately, work by psychotherapist Linda Buzzell and others undermines this Pollyanna belief by pointing out that people as a species “don’t seem to be very good at understanding enormous, complex challenges like the ones we’re presently facing, let alone processing our emotional responses to these threats and moving into action.” I agree, and as I’ve explained in earlier posts, this is why my work focuses on technologies that can provide a buffer between consumption and natural resources without behavioral change.

I’m sure people will continue to use green and sustainable as an easy shorthand for things that are less harmful on the environment. But that will become disingenuous, if it hasn’t already. So what will take their place? The younger set have started searching for something more meaningful, although I’m not sure the term “Freen” does more than add another cool-sounding, but largely meaningless term to the existing lexicon of self-indulgence. Others have lobbied for using a nomenclature built on the notion of “blue”. Ultimately, none of these terms pass the smell  test. “Low carbon” is good, but carbon is simply one piece of the problem and solution, so it is insufficient. “Resource-sensitive” and “low-impact development” start to get at the issue, but are kludgy. “Beyond compliance” is too narrow. Whatever the answer, the reality is that the words we use to define our struggle for survival are badly in need of an update.

If you have thoughts on the matter, post a comment or send me something pithy on Twitter @mrcleantech

William Brent heads the Cleantech practice at Weber Shandwick, a leading international marketing communications and PR firm. Formerly a serial entrepreneur and news correspondent during a 15-year stint in China, he now works to promote technologies that will power a clean economy. He lives in the Puget Sound area, and can also be found online at and @mrcleantech.

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9 responses

  1. If you believe that the American consumer has adopted the concept of “green” then it is time to advance to a higher level thought process.
    At present, however, cities across America do not even recycle, let alone a whole host of other forward moving eco-progress actions, so in my view, giving up on the “brand” equity in the term green would risk losing all those who have yet to even reach the primary school level on the concept, which is he majority of the population.
    If the U.S. struggles with healthcare consensus, and the term is pretty specific and personal, how much longer will it take to build a collective consensus on the overall benefit of “green”?

    1. I couldn’t agree more. To suggest that the terms we use are now of importance is to completely miss the point. Society is so far away from being ‘sustainable’ that to even vaguely worry about the term itself seems odd to say the least.

      The one important fact to recognise is that the meeting of any government legislation is just another way of being ‘as bad as the law will allow you to be’. This is not what the sustainability movement is about – it is about best practice, continuous improvement and as such, will never be ‘achieved’ only ever strived for.

      As for suggesting the entire movement is now out of the realms of ‘marketing’ is strange. If it’s about continuous improvement, then someone, somewhere is doing more to lower their impact than anyone else, so why wouldn’t they market the fact – it’s leading by example.

      As to the language used by corporates relating to corporate sustainability, guidelines such as the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) and the AA1000 give good guidance on what is acceptable and what is not. I think the more important thing to look for is independent verification of claims made.

      Having that said, I actually don’t even see much in the way of ‘green-washing’ anymore – I think corporates have become wise to the negative reputational risk they run by going anywhere near it.

  2. What a poignant line from the article: “I’m not sure the term ‘Green’ does more than add another cool-sounding, but largely meaningless term to the existing lexicon of self-indulgence.”

    This really fits in line with a lot of people—like Yvon Chouinard and the heaps of others—that say that terms like this are lacking-in-meaning neologisms, capable of distracting all of us from what ultimately should matter.

  3. Yes, language changes, fragments, even decays, but it’s important to be as wary of our own oblique terms as we are about the ever-changing meanings of the simpler vaguer ones we use (e.g. “green”). Maybe if we place less emphasis on buzzwords and used more energy to describe individual efforts, the language we use to describe this movement—and thus, the movement itself—would have more staying power. The human urge to categorize everything under simple, catchy headings can be as damaging as it is seemingly helpful.

  4. I agree with Tom Larsen and Padosa. If the author is in the clean, green, carbon, sustainability etc etc arena (like myself) then it’s easy to think the world is saturated with these terms.

    This arena affects every industry and every demographic on some level. Yes, terms like Resource-sensitive and low-impact development but is going to make things any clearer for the masses? What isn’t resource sensitive these days? And what’s the difference between what you try to achieve with low-impact development as opposed to sustainable development?

    And a price on carbon doesn’t mean “going green becomes no longer exceptional”. Companies will only have to pay over and above a set cap on their emissions. We’re not talking about carbon neutrality here. And if “everyone” is at least doing what they have to comply there’s still plenty of room excel and stand out. And as the consumer gets more savvy the stakes will become higher.

    If sustainable development is “intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned” what’s the alternative? Stick our heads in the proverbial sand and carry on our merry way?

    We’re only now beginning this journey! Huge global movements take time and effort. If the corporates are reducing energy here and water there and sourcing leather from none amazonian suppliers etc etc THEN GOOD!

    Sure we’re not going to stop the inevitable now. We never had a chance anyway. But when Mother Nature finally decides to scratch her itch (any bets for 2012/13 anyone? :-) ) at least we’ll be part way down the path as opposed to not at all.

  5. Pingback: Talk the Green Talk | HomeIntel

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