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Marketing green

Phosphate detergents were one of the earliest environmental battle grounds in the 1970s. I remember seeing pictures of rivers with suds from bank to bank. Of course, phosphorous is a fertilizer, and the algae in the rivers loved it. It wasn’t good for the fish, for people who wanted to catch the fish, or the people who had to smell lots of dead, rotting fish on the river banks.

It’s not worth the trouble to try to find all the details this much later, but after a while some manufacturers started touting detergents made without phosphates. The implication was that they were good for the environment. Whenever I asked anyone what the products used instead, I got a wide variety of very unhelpful answers.

I would have liked to know what took the place of phosphates and investigate whether those substances were, in fact, good for the environment. I would have liked to know if anyone had even studied whatever they were.

My research skills have gotten much better since then. Information is much easier to find. One thing hasn’t changed, though. Manufacturers still make green claims for products. Unfortunately what the manufacturers mean and what consumers hear are often not the same thing. Dishonest environmental claims have become known as “greenwashing.”

Today’s green claims

Anyone can print “100% natural,” “green,” “environmentally safer,” “made with nontoxic ingredients,” or “eco-friendly” on a label. Meaning what? None of those terms have standard definitions that would communicate to consumers how the products are good for the environment.

I remember how outraged some environmentalists became when they discovered pollution from manufacturers who marketed recycled products. It shouldn’t be a surprise. So far, humans have not learned to do anything that doesn’t potentially harm the environment.

It stands to reason that any negative impacts of manufacturing something made from post-consumer plastic would be less than the impact of making the plastic in the first place plus the impact of disposing of it. Alas, what stand to reason may not always be the case.


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