How green is ‘green’?

In recent times environmental issues have found mention in the Indian print and online media. It is heartening — or depressing, depending on the circumstances — to read such stories, whether they concern corporate social responsibility, recycling e-waste or rainwater harvesting. While we laud, or shame, certain companies, we forget something crucial: as consumers, can we inspire them to manufacture green products or provide green services?

Goods made from recycled or natural material, such as jute and hemp, BPA (bisphenol A)-free toys, organic food items, and energy-efficient fans are examples of green products. A homegrown and ideal example of green service is the one offered by Daily Dump. The company helps manage wet household waste by converting it into compost through terracotta compost bins.

The world of green products is a bit convoluted. A truly green product would be one that is designed, manufactured and marketed keeping as many environmental factors as possible in mind. This necessitates a complex but highly worthwhile exercise called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This is a technique to assess the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, right from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling. Simply put, LCA sums up what goes in and what comes out of a product in environmental terms. This helps companies modify certain processes to make the products green. For instance, Product A produced by Company X cannot be called green if it merely packages the product in a recycled paper bag, as opposed to a plastic one. But if X conducts LCA for the product and decides there are substantial environmental and monetary benefits to be had by, say, cutting down on water and energy consumption during its manufacture or use, it is on its way to greening that product.

While this appears to be a tall order, several companies worldwide have met such goals. Several Indian companies, textile exporters for instance, are working to meet stringent quality and environmental criteria prescribed for their products by importing countries. But whether this environmental sensitivity trickles down to products meant for the Indian consumer is another question altogether. Readers may recall the findings on honey by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, where the exported brands of honey met all health-related specifications while those sold domestically did not. Greening a product also includes consideration for consumer health.

LCA is, however, not inexpensive. In some sense, it can morph into rocket science. So before advocating changes to a production line, companies are bound to wonder if consumers would prefer a green product over its un-green counterpart. It is a classic case of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Would you buy a green product or opt for a green service knowing that you would probably need to pay more for it, say an additional 5-8 per cent, to offset the costs that have gone into greening it?

There is a lesson for companies as well. Consider this: after nearly 30 years since Germany introduced its eco-friendly products labelling scheme —the Blue Angel—the country boasts of close to 1,100 product suppliers with 11,500 green products; 22 per cent of them are foreign suppliers. This proves that if there is demand, there are no market boundaries. A 2009 survey of 9,000 consumers worldwide indicated that buying green products remained a priority despite the economic downturn. Higher demand would bring down the cost.

Green products and services should not be looked upon as mere fads. While they appear fashionable [or as some may snicker, befitting an environmentalist jhola-wala], they do go a long way in making us green citizens that we all ought to be. However, green products and services will remain a pipe dream if we, as consumers, do not ask for them.

Mahazareen Dastur is an environmental researcher and writer based in Mumbai.
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