The Green Movement: A Progress Report

In recent years, a consensus seems to be developing that it is important to care for the environment. This "green movement" has motivated many companies to promote what they are doing to be more eco-friendly. Coca-Cola, for example, is selling its new green image at the 2010 Winter Olympics with its "environmental call to action." The company did market research which suggested that it had a lot of work to do to polish up its green image, particularly among consumers in the 13-29 age group. In particular, critics have accused Coke of (1) wasting water (it takes 250 litres of water to make one litre of Coca-Cola), and (2) creating a lot of waste for landfills (75 percent of plastic bottles that contain Coca-Cola products end up in landfills). Coke therefore developed a new, eco-friendly container (called the PlantBottle) that is made partly from sugar cane and molasses. The new bottle produces 30 percent fewer emissions because less oil is used in making it.

You might think that any attempt by a company to be more eco-friendly would be viewed positively by those who are concerned about protecting the environment. But that isn't necessarily the case. Skeptics say that the new Coke bottle really doesn't accomplish much because it is still mostly plastic. They note that even though plastic bottles are recyclable, most consumers just throw them out, so simply giving consumers access to plastic bottles is a bad idea.

The sort of criticism that Coca-Cola is getting is not unusual. The fact is that almost any proposed green idea can become caught up in controversy that inhibits the progress of green practices. For example, consider the idea of green roofs (planting vegetation on the roofs of buildings). While some companies have had green roofs for years (for example, the green roof on the Manulife Centre parkade in Toronto has been there for 25 years, and the trees are now three storeys high), the idea is just now starting to really catch on. In May 2009, Toronto's city council passed a bylaw which mandates green roofs on new commercial buildings and high-rise residential buildings. Starting in 2010, such buildings must have at least part of their roof space devoted to green plantings. It is estimated that a green roof of 350 square metres with 75 percent of its area in greenery would reduce the heat-island effect by 26 percent and reduce rainwater runoff by 38 percent. This sounds promising, but critics argue that the new bylaw may actually inhibit the progress of the green movement because it will increase building development costs and limit the options developers can choose from when they are trying to make buildings more environmentally-friendly. The bylaw is seen as one more problem that developers must solve before they can build. And with the economy in a fragile state, that is a problem.

Another controversy is swirling around the issue of shopping bags. Which ones are the most eco-friendly: paper bags, plastic bags, or reusable cloth bags? At first glance, it might seem obvious that plastic bags would be the worst because they have generated the most negative publicity (and they are banned in several Canadian cities). It might also seem obvious that reusable cloth or canvas bags would be the best, simply because they can be reused. But there are actually advantages and disadvantages associated with all three alternatives. To determine which alternative is best requires a consideration of many factors, including input and output costs, distribution costs, and reclamation costs. To give you an idea of the complexity of the issue, consider the following facts. Paper bags are better than plastic bags because they are made from natural materials, while plastic bags are synthetic. But research shows that paper bags generate 70 percent more emissions and 50 percent more water pollution than plastic bags. Plastic bags have problems too, since they are made from fossil fuels. And plastic will not degrade down to organic material over time like paper will. Eco-friendly reusable cotton bags also have problems because cotton production is so water-intensive and it requires the use of lots of pesticides. As well, one study showed that 30 percent of reusable bags had unsafe levels of bacterial contaminants, and 40 percent contained yeast or mold. Plastic bags do not have either of these problems. Given all these advantages and disadvantages, it is difficult for consumers to know which alternative is best.

The controversy about which type of bag is best can be seen in the decision by Whole Foods to discontinue traditional plastic bags, but to continue to sell upscale plastic bags for 99 cents and canvas bags for $6.99. The company will offer paper bags for free. This might sound like a reasonable approach, but environmental groups are not happy with the decision because it suggests to consumers that paper is better than plastic when there isn’t any solid scientific evidence to back up that argument. Critics call it "feel-good environmentalism."

Controversy about specific products is not the only factor limiting the progress of green practices. Another important factor is the state of the economy. The recession of 2008-2009 caused many businesses to put eco-friendly plans on hold. For example, Horizon Air, a U.S.-based airline, had planned to replace its regional jets with new Q400 turboprops made by Bombardier. The new planes burn 30 percent less fuel and therefore produce fewer emissions. But the economic slowdown forced the company to put those plans on hold. Another example: Clear Skies Solar cancelled plans to build a one-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert because it couldn’t get enough financial backing. The plans were cancelled even though government grants are available for the development of solar power.

Consumer attitudes about eco-friendly behaviour can also limit the success of green products. In April 2009, a survey by the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto showed that one-third of Canadians say they often purchase environmentally-friendly products, but 78 percent are unwilling to pay the higher price that is often evident for green products. Another online survey of 1,000 Canadians showed that people are willing to do certain small things (for example, buying environmentally-friendly light bulbs), but they are skeptical about adopting bigger measures. A third study, conducted by Procter & Gamble (P & G), showed that consumers are reluctant to spend more money just because a product is eco-friendly. Only 10 percent of consumers who were surveyed said they would pay a higher price (or accept a performance decrease) for a product that would benefit the environment. What’s worse, 75 percent said they would not accept any tradeoff. So, P & G is now focusing on developing sustainable innovation products that are more eco-friendly than earlier products, but which cost about the same price and have the same quality.

The level of acceptance of green products has also been influenced by individuals who argue that the green movement has gone too far, and that too many consumers are suffering from something called "eco-OCD" (eco obsessive-compulsive disorder). This term refers to the phenomenon of consumers being compulsively obsessed with being green in terms of the products they buy. Skeptics argue, for example, that the green movement negatively affects economic growth and increases unemployment. One study in Spain showed that every "green job" that was created destroyed 2.2 jobs elsewhere in the economy. The study concluded that government spending on renewable energy was only half as effective at creating new jobs as an equivalent amount of spending by the private sector.

Consumers may also be reluctant to spend money on eco-friendly products because they are confused by the green claims that are being made by various companies. The Boston Consulting Group study mentioned above also found that consumers are confused about the green options that are available because there is such a wide array of eco-labels on products. is a Vancouver-based company that has identified 274 eco-labels, 23 of them originating in Canada. There are labels touting compostable products, fair trade products, energy efficient products, forest stewardship products, lake-friendly products, and organic products. These eco-labels are supposed to help consumers sift through environmental claims, but what do these labels actually mean? How can shoppers know which products really are eco-friendly and which ones are simply hype? The only thing that seems reasonably certain is that consumers are willing to pay a price premium in the short run if it leads to obvious long-term gains (for example, an energy-efficient refrigerator costs more than a regular one, but it saves money in the long run via lower electric bills).

There are people who are trying to help consumers sort through the maze of conflicting claims. Dara O'Rourke is a university professor who has developed a website called GoodGuide that allows consumers to identify the ingredients found in the products they buy. The website reports on both the environmental impact of products as well as their health effects. Website visitors enter a product name and get a score. The higher the score, the safer and more environmentally-friendly the product is. In April 2009, the website had about 110,000 visitors, and that number is growing by about 25 percent a month. O'Rourke’s goal is to help consumers get past the green claims of companies, and get to the actual facts. The goal is to really change the system. Instead of having companies telling consumers what to believe about their products, the idea is to have consumers tell companies what is important to them in the products they buy.

Consumers may also become confused as they try to balance contradictory objectives about products. This problem can be clearly seen in automobile products. On the one hand, we are told we need to sharply reduce carbon emissions by discouraging the use of gas-guzzling cars. We could presumably achieve this goal by raising fuel-efficiency standards or encouraging the use of public transit. On the other hand, the governments of both the U.S. and Canada are giving billions of dollars to Chrysler and General Motors in an attempt to save jobs at two companies that have historically produced gas-guzzling cars. These billions of dollars would move us toward the goal of reduced carbon emissions if Chrysler and General Motors could start producing green cars at a price consumers could afford, but industry experts say they can't (at least not in the near term). GM's all-electric car, the Volt, is too expensive to be purchased by a lot of consumers, and GM's current financial problems mean that it cannot risk the kind of money it formerly would have on a new product. As well, GM is a generation behind foreign automakers like Toyota in the development of green cars. It is also true that when gas prices are relatively low, consumers don't seem overly interested in green cars anyway. Add in the fact that profit margins are very small on green cars and you have yet another limiting factor.

To cope with all this complexity, consumers need a good measure of ecological intelligence to help them make the distinction between style and substance in ecological claims. One proposal is for consumers to use something called Life Cycle Analysis, which calculates the carbon footprint of various activities (for example, a round-trip flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, or a bouquet of flowers flown to Toronto from Kenya). But there is no guarantee that providing such detailed information would cause consumers to change their purchasing patterns. Organic foods and so-called "fair trade" products have been around for years, yet most people ignore them.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Summarize in your own words the major factors that can inhibit the progress toward greener practices on the part of businesses and consumers.
  2. Electric cars create far less pollution than cars powered by the internal combustion engine. In spite of their environmentally-friendly nature, it may be quite a few years before there are a lot of electric cars on the road. Why might this be so?
  3. There is a lot of controversy about which type of shopping bag is most eco-friendly (plastic, paper, or reusable). Which alternative do you think is best? Defend your answer.
  4. Consider the following statement: It is not worthwhile to provide consumers with detailed information about the content of products or the carbon footprint of various activities because most consumers simply won't use it. Consumers are struggling to get along financially from day-to-day, and they don't have the time or inclination to use such information. Do you agree or disagree with the statement? Explain your reasoning.

Sources: Lindsey Wiebe, "Logo La-La Land," Winnipeg Free Press, August 23, 2009, p. A7; Lindsey Wiebe, "Will Consumers Go For True 'Green' Products?," Winnipeg Free Press, August 2, 2009, (Books section), p. 6; Diane Katz, "The Grocery-Bag Dilemma: Is Paper or Plastic Greener?," Winnipeg Free Press, July 26, 2009, p. A11; Susan Krashninsky, "The Green Gap," The Globe and Mail, July 17, 2009, p. B4; "Beyond the Green Marketing Mirage; GoodGuide Supplies Instant Information on a Host of Products," National Post, June 22, 2009, p. FP5; Terrence Belford, "Developers Blue Over Green Roofs," The Globe and Mail, June 16, 2009, p. B10; David Ebner, "Coke Will Use The Olympics to Launch Its Latest Environmental Push, But Will a Generation That’s Grown Wary of 'Greenwashing' Buy the PlantBottle?," The Globe and Mail, June 10, 2009, p. B1; William Watson, "The Uses of Eco-OCD," National Post, May 30, 2009, p. FP19; Jennifer Wells, "How Recession Changed the Green Marketplace," The Globe and Mail, April 20, 2009, p. B1; Konrad Yakabuski, "Green Dreams, Unplugged," The Globe and Mail, April 4, 2009, p. F1; Lawrence Solomon, "Green Economics: It Just Doesn’t Add Up," National Post, March 31, 2009, p. FP11; Alia McMullen, "Will Green Agenda Fade?; In Tough Times, Environmental Action May Lose Its Momentum," National Post, January 17, 2009, p. FP1; Joe Castaldo, "Green Counting," Canadian Business, October 13, 2008, p. 27.

Answers to Questions for Discussion

  1. Summarize in your own words the major factors that can inhibit the progress toward greener practices on the part of businesses and consumers.
  2. The main factors inhibiting the progress toward greener practices are (a) controversy about whether a given product is really green or not (for example, the controversy surrounding plastic, paper, and reusable shopping bags); (b) the state of the economy (in period of economic difficulty companies and consumers may lose interest in green products and practices); (c) consumer attitudes about eco-friendly products (consumers are reluctant to pay the higher prices that are often evident on eco-friendly products); (d) individuals who argue that the green movement has gone too far (the eco-OCD argument); and (e) consumer confusion about the green claims many companies make for their products (many different eco-labels create confusion).

  3. Electric cars create far less pollution than cars powered by the internal combustion engine. In spite of their environmentally-friendly nature, it may be quite a few years before there are a lot of electric cars on the road. Why might this be so?
  4. There are three main reasons. First, the internal combustion engine has been the dominant technology used to power automobile for many decades. The technology is highly refined, it works well, and everyone is used to it. Because there is much inertia in the system, strong incentives are needed to move businesses and consumers in the direction of electric cars. These incentives to change to electric cars have actually become evident during the past decade because of the rising price of oil and the recognition that the internal combustion engine is a key contributor to air pollution. But it will take time for these incentives to result in changed behaviour on the part of businesses and consumers.

    Second, because the technology used to make internal combustion powered cars is deeply entrenched at companies like GM, Ford, and Chrysler, the development of a new technology for powering automobiles is simply not going to happen overnight. Over the past several decades there have been several attempts to introduce new power systems for automobiles (for example, the rotary engine), but somehow they never quite worked out. The technology for powering cars electrically is now developing rapidly, with foreign car makers leading the way. But much work remains to be done. At the moment, the technology seems more oriented toward hybrid cars, which runs partly on gasoline and partly on electricity. Time will be required for pure electric car technology to be developed and widely adopted.

    Third, while consumer demand for electric (or hybrid) cars is increasing, the rate of change is relatively slow. There are several reasons for this. One of the simplest and most important reasons is inertia, that is, consumers are used to cars powered by the internal combustion engine. These cars perform well, and they provide the large amount of power that consumers want in an automobile. This is particularly true for SUVs (when economic times are good). It seems that consumers actually like SUVs, even though they may feel a bit guilty for driving a vehicle that pollutes the atmosphere. So the desire to change is not strong. Another reason that consumers may be reluctant to buy electric (or hybrid) cars is that they will have to make some changes in their behaviour. While we might think that plugging in an electric car at work or home is actually be easier than going to the gas station for a fill-up, there will likely be initial resistance to changing behaviour patterns. Consumers will have to agree to adopt this new required behaviour. Another reason for consumer reluctance is the higher prices that are likely to be charged (at least initially) for electric cars. This is a common pattern in new products, where prices are initially high, and then they decline as unit sales increase. In the 1980s, for example, early adopters paid thousands of dollars for the first personal computers, but prices are now much lower. Consumers are also reluctant because they have concerns about lower performance characteristics of electric cars along the power dimension.

  5. There is a lot of controversy about which type of shopping bag is most eco-friendly (plastic, paper, or reusable). Which alternative do you think is best? Defend your answer.
  6. Student answers will obviously vary. The material above provides only illustrative data in order to briefly make the point that a comprehensive analysis is required before a rational decision can be made on which alternative is best. This question provides the incentive for students to look into the obvious (and not-so-obvious) advantages and disadvantages of the three alternatives.

    The key point here is that students must gather data about the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative before they can make a decision. And it is quite possible that after gathering such data that none of the alternatives will stand out as clearly superior. That outcome may create some anxiety in students, but it will also increase their appreciation for the complexity of ecological controversies. It will also demonstrate the importance of critical thinking when working through controversies.

  7. Consider the following statement: It is not worthwhile to provide consumers with detailed information about the content of products or the carbon footprint of various activities because most consumers simply won't use it. Consumers are struggling to get along financially from day-to-day, and they don't have the time or inclination to use such information. Do you agree or disagree with the statement? Explain your reasoning.
  8. Student answers will also vary for this question, so it is important to determine how they reached the conclusion they did. There are three key claims made supporting the basic contention that consumers won't use detailed product information, and each of these claims must be analyzed.

    The first claim is that consumers are struggling financially. This is certainly true during recessionary periods, and it is even true for many consumers when economic times are good. But this fact must be related to the willingness of consumers to gather detailed product information. Some students will argue that financially strapped consumers won’t bother to gather such information because they can’t afford the higher prices that are normally charged on eco-friendly products. Other students will argue that consumers who are concerned about the environment will seek out detailed product information simply because it is important to them (and in so doing they might find products that satisfy both their eco-friendly and price requirements). These students might also note that if companies like Procter & Gamble are successful in developing sustainable innovation products (eco-friendly products at the same price as traditional products), this will increase consumer interest in getting detailed product information.

    The second claim is that consumers don't have the time to spend seeking out detailed product information. There is some truth to this claim, but it is difficult to address this claim with hard facts. Some statistics are occasionally provided in the popular press regarding the number of hours the average person works each week, and how many hours of sleep the general population gets, but these facts are very broad brush, and bringing them to bear on a specific issue like this is problematic. The claim about inclinations (see next paragraph) may be more important.

    The third claim is that consumers don't have the inclination to use detailed product information. We know that people spend time doing what interests them, so if gathering detailed product information happens to be interesting, people will do it. But there is not much evidence suggesting that this is a preoccupation of most consumers at the moment (some consumers do, of course, seek out detailed product information). If society truly moves toward increased concern about the environment in the future, more and more consumers will likely develop the inclination to seek out detailed product information. But it will be a gradual process. For example, the majority of consumers are not suddenly going to seek out websites like GoodGuide to determine which products are really the most eco-friendly. Rather, there will be increasing interest over time among consumers in getting such information.