Are you really green?

I’ll be honest: I hate the word “green.” It’s been used and misused too many times, most often in marketing products with no connection to environmentalism besides green packaging and the smugness of their purchasers. The green movement is a worthy one but with too much excess baggage. Flanked by self-righteous urban denizens buying everything with a leaf on the package and gigantic corporations trying to convince you that their energy-guzzling appliance is better than the next company’s, it’s become a punch line. And why? Isn’t cutting down on your environmental impact a fundamentally good thing? Of course, but before you pat yourself on the back, you need to gauge how much you’re actually helping things.

Many Williams students would like to be environmentally conscious; seeking choices that don’t harm the earth. Often, though, this leads to little more than the occasional signed petition and self-congratulatory joining of an eco-oriented Facebook group. Sometimes it leads to buying products with dubious green credentials. In the process of trying to help the environment, you might actually harm it. You might think you’ve done your share for the earth, so you don’t feel obligated to do other things that actually help, like recycling or reducing energy power consumption.

So what exactly are you buying when you purchase green products or shop at green stores? Vague terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” and “natural” aren’t regulated in the United States – nor, by the way, is “green.” This means that any manufacturer can put these labels on their products without proving that these products are in anyway better for the environment. And, of course, there are no laws regulating product names or packaging to make them look more appealing to the eco-consumer. So don’t let misguided environmental consciousness stand in the way of being a smart buyer. A leaf, tree or smiling Mother Earth on a box of cereal in no way informs you about its contents. Check your labels before you buy.

Even if you do end up buying or doing something that helps the environment, most “green” lifestyle choices don’t address the issues at the heart of environmental products. Your hybrid car will certainly save gas, but shouldn’t you be cutting down on your reliance on personal vehicles and taking public transportation more often? Your appliances may be Energy Star Certified, but wouldn’t washing your dishes by hand be better for the earth? You’ve got that obnoxious “Greenbook” Facebook application, but couldn’t you go one step further and turn your computer off when you’re not using it? Not only will it save you energy, it will drastically reduce your odds of waking up one morning and finding that your roommate has changed your profile picture to that of Rick Astley. Yes, you have the right to congratulate yourself even if your contribution to the green movement is minimal, but don’t consider yourself too much better than the next gas-guzzling, energy-wasting American. You’ve got a long way to go.

And then there are the “green” choices that honestly and truly do nothing. Most Williams students would like to be able to help the environment in ways that don’t cause us any inconvenience or make us spend money. The Internet is partially to blame for this in making it easy to think you’ve done good. Signing irrelevant Internet petitions, joining pointless Facebook groups and visiting those “click once a day to [insert noble cause here]” sites are examples of a phenomenon some call “slacktivism.” We want to feel good about ourselves, but we don’t want to put ourselves out, and that’s what’s making the green movement stagnate. If one genuinely could not give a damn about the environment, that’s fine, but one shouldn’t use the Internet to delude oneself that one is making a difference.

So what can we do that will give real cause to congratulate ourselves? Most of the little things we can do for the environment have been outlined to us over and over again. We actually know what to do; we’re just too lazy, forgetful or hurried to do it. Choices like reducing power consumption, cutting down on driving and using reusable products rather than disposable ones are common knowledge. We just need to put them into action, and part of this is acknowledging that, no matter what we’re currently doing for the earth, it doesn’t mean we can sit back and stop thinking about it.

For more info, check out Greener Choices’ Web site at greenerchoices.org, where you can find out what – if anything – product labels mean and how to make better choices as an environmentally-conscious consumer. Your dollar has more political power than you think. Also, Al Gore, for all his pop icon status, is a pretty cool guy with some good ideas – his site, wecansolveit.org, has some great tips for reducing your environmental impact.

Andrew Triska ’10 is a political science major from Estacada, Oreg.