Summary from “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS GREEN PRODUCT” by R. GEYER AND T. ZINK on Stanford Social Innovation review
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“Let’s first take a closer look at the current thinking about green products. Most managers realize that virtually all products and services have environmental impacts, just as they have economic costs. In other words, practically all products and services require the extraction of natural resources and cause the release of wastes and emissions, and both these activities are almost certain to affect the natural environment adversely. The environmental benefits of green products are not that they somehow fix the environment or have zero impact, but rather that their environmental impacts are less than those of similar products.
Products can have an impact on the environment during one or more stages of their life cycles, which are production, use, and end of life. A natural step is therefore to tally up the environmental impacts of similar products throughout their life cycles and compare the results. (The same can be done for services, which typically involve the use of products, but we will mostly use product here to keep things simple.)
The trouble with green products starts with the seemingly commonsense idea that greenness can be determined through comparison to a benchmark product. (…) Many managers and management scholars have a much cruder approach to greenness. Frequently, they simply look for one product attribute that can be labeled green and call a product green if it scores high in this attribute. This way bio-based materials (such as clothes made from natural fibers), products with recycled content, and hybrid cars are labeled green products even without genuine analysis.
(…) Imagine someone buying a refurbished cell phone (or any other refurbished electronic device) in addition to, the advertised greenness of the energy-efficient gadget even encouraged the consumer to purchase it instead of not buying anything., a new one, say as a backup device. Or picture someone buying the refurbished product because she cannot afford a new one. What about someone who buys a brand new, very energy-efficient gadget, not instead of a less energy-efficient gadget, but instead of no gadget at all? Maybe
(…) That the problem goes far beyond choosing benchmarks can be illustrated with a close examination of the mother of all green activities: recycling. (…) We are not saying that recycling is bad for the environment, but that it is almost certainly not as good as you think. The controversy over recycled content makes the choice of a benchmark product difficult enough. The fact that recycling may grow the market rather than displace primary metals production one-to-one makes it meaningless.
(…) The breakthrough invention of the blue LED (necessary to create white LED light) earned scientists Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics. The Nobel committee hailed the LED as a “fundamental transformation of lighting technology,” stating that because they are energy-efficient, “the increase in lighting consumption outweighs the increase in lighting efficiency and leads to a net increase in electricity consumption and related environmental impacts.. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs.” But historical analysis of artificial lighting shows that total consumption has increased dramatically as the cost of lighting has decreased. This could even lead to what is called “backfire,” the situation where
A product that reduces environmental impact per unit service but increases total environmental impact should not be called green despite its apparent eco-efficiency.
Efforts to increase the environmental sustainability of corporations should lead to an overall reduction in environmental impact, or be “net green”: A business activity is net green if and only if it reduces overall environmental impact.”
Roland Geyer is associate professor of industrial ecology and green supply chain management at THE BREN SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & MANAGEMENT, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA BARBARA.
Trevor Zink is an assistant professor of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at the COLLEGE OF BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION, LOYOLA MARYMOUNT UNIVERSITY.
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