Feb. 14 2008 09:23 AM

I'm learning that green doesn't go with everything, like those strange-shade-of-green pants abandoned in my closet. The last time I wore them, all it took was a raised eyebrow from my wife for me to head back upstairs, head-down defeated.


These days, it's me doing the eyebrow raising, as I'm bombarded with ads and press releases linking 'green' (as in "environmentally friendly") with all sorts of products and services. Is Bubble Wrap, for example, a 'green' product? The folks at Shoplet.com think so. The product is included in the "Shop Green" section of its website (tagline: "Save Money, Save the Planet"), along with telephones, cameras, pens, and other items that contain recycled or recyclable materials (apparently, recyclability is the only criteria Shop-let.com used in making its 'green' selections).


On the one hand, Bubble Wrap allows companies to protect their products with less packaging material compared to alternatives such as loose fill or paper. Sealed Air, the manufacturer of Bubble Wrap, also encourages customers to reuse the material as much as possible to "delay [its] final disposal and reduce the amount of materials needed to manufacture new products." On the other hand, Bubble Wrap is a petroleum-based material, a co-extrusion of nylon and polyethylene that can't be processed at many municipal recycling locations. Sealed Air has seven sites where customers can ship used material for recycling, but customers have to pay for shipping, and the wrap must be free of tape, labels or any foreign materials. (In this case, it's important to note that the product is being promoted as 'green' by the retailer, not the manufacturer).


This example illustrates an inconvenient truth of many 'green' products and initiatives: there are tradeoffs that companies and consumers must acknowledge and address. Negatives may still exist, even if the net results are positive.  It's like prescription drugs: you can take a little purple pill to treat your heartburn, but you may have to deal with headaches, diarrhea, and dry mouth in the process.


Tradeoffs exist because most products, manufacturing processes and supply chains were not designed with sustainability in mind. Although sustainability is weaving its way into the industrial world, change will occur slowly, so companies and consumers will have to manage these tradeoffs for many years to come. But what are the tradeoffs?  Unfortunately, you won't find the answer in most articles about 'green' and sustainability.


For example, I've read countless articles highlighting the energy-saving benefits of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). According to ENERGY STAR, if every American home replaced just one incandescent bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, we would "save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars." It's the feel good story of the moment, which is why I've replaced most of the incandescent bulbs in my house with CFLs.


But I can't recall a single article shedding light (no pun intended) on how these bulbs contain mercury, on how consumers shouldn't throw them away in the garbage, or what to do if you break one at home, as happened to me (see EPA site for what to do). Unlike some folks writing on this topic, I'm optimistic about Wal-Mart's commitment to sustainability, including its actions to promote broader use of CFLs. But if you go to Walmart.com to buy a CFL, you'll see plenty of information about the cost and energy benefits of the bulbs, but no mention of mercury or responsible handling and disposal information.


Granted, the amount of mercury in each CFL is miniscule compared to old thermometers. And earlier this year, lighting company members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) voluntarily committed to cap the amount of mercury in each 25 watt or less CFL at 5 milligrams (see March 13, 2007 press release). Also, a coal-powered plant releases more mercury powering an incandescent lamp, over a five-year period, than a comparably luminous CFL.


So, yes, the benefits of CFLs far outweigh the negatives. But if these negatives are not recognized and dealt with effectively, are we really making progress? Taking five steps forward and one step back keeps you moving in the right direction, but eliminating the backward step will get you to the final destination faster and with less negative impact on the environment.


If recyclability alone does not define a 'green' product, what does? Being made from natural materials? Helping to lower greenhouse gases?  Asbestos is made by Mother Nature herself and its insulating properties help reduce energy use, leading to lower carbon dioxide emissions. Viewing asbestos from this perspective only, it's irresponsible for us to spend billions of dollars on lawsuits and asbestos-removal projects to eliminate a material that can significantly lower our carbon footprint.  But as radio legend Paul Harvey reminds us every day in his broadcast, there's always "the rest of the story" that helps us to reach more accurate and complete interpretations of problems and opportunities.


Defining 'green' is not a trivial task, especially when tradeoffs exist. Several organizations have developed certification programs in this area, including MBDC and The International Oeko-Tex Association. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also tackling this question, announcing in late November that it's beginning a regulatory review of its environmental marketing guidelines (last updated in 1998). The FTC was planning to review the guidelines in 2009, but "because of the current increase in green advertising claims, the Commission is reviewing the guides at this time to ensure they reflect today's marketplace." I hope this means I'll be raising my eyebrows less next year.


As for my pants, the rest of the story is the same: they're still hanging in the dark corner of my closet. The holidays have come and gone, and although I received several nice shirts as presents, none of them match the pants. So I'm going to wait a few more months and see what happens on my birthday. If no luck, I'll give the pants to my kids, let them make dragon and frog puppets with the fabricafter I test the pants for lead, of course.


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