On Sustainability

Greenwashing is tricky business. For those of you unaware of it’s meaning (though I’m certain you have encountered it on many different occasions), according to Wikipedia:

[g]reenwashing (a portmanteau of “green” and “whitewash”) is the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly.

(Normally I wouldn’t pull directly from a Wikipedia article, but it mentions portmanteaus and that is something I cannot resist.)

This is something that gets my back up on a day-to-day basis, but I recently attended a lecture on sustainability that made the greenwashing trend even harder to ignore.  

It all happened last Thursday in Lunenburg. I was there for personal interest and work obligation. It was a part of an architecture conference and the lecturer in question was Glenn Murcutt. For a bit of context, he is an influential Australian architect who has been practicing since the early 60s.

Glenn Murcutt knows what's going on.

Among many other things, Murcutt is well known in the architecture world for his early and heartfelt dedication to sustainability in design. I doubt I can convey his earnestness and sincerity in their full glory, so I will try to describe how the experience affected me (as usual).

As Murcutt described his education in the natural world, I was moved by the grace of his language. He spoke on the conditions of his natural surroundings and how they were employed in his design process. It involves a thorough knowledge of the regional environment, weather patterns, cultural needs, and a myriad of other factors. These are factors that you can only know through immersion. In that strange and fascinating way, you don’t know until you know.

It was a beautiful thing. Though he made it clear that sustainability, or responsibility, is endlessly complex, it all seemed so natural, so easy.

The value of responsible, local participation was really driven home. Greenwashing is easy. But the care and holism of truly sustainable design is, I feel, invaluable.  

9 thoughts on “On Sustainability

  1. First of all, I LOVE a good portmanteau. Secondly, I didn’t know there was a term for this practice of marketing! It’s the same idea when it comes to advertising processed food as healthy or natural (or even organic) and implying that the lack of chemicals also means low-sodium, low-fat, low-sugar, etc. which is SO NOT indicative of healthy! It also reminds me of a conversation I overheard a long, long time ago (mid nineties) when I listened to my mother asking her friend, a communications professional with a large, multi-label company, what the deal was with this new “antibacterial” soap. The friend replied, “it’s just soap. Same as ever. It’s just now we’re highlighting the germ killing ability on the labels.” Tricky, tricky, eh?

    France, can you reveal some companies (or give us some hints) that use this greenwashing technique so we can be on the look out?

  2. At some point “green” marketing is not about helping you making responsible choices about things you have to do or buy anyway, but just a ploy to make you feel virtuous about buying more stuff than you actually need. That’s not helpful.

  3. “Greenwashing” has become so incredibly pervasive, it’s pretty much safe to say that ALL companies do it to a degree. But the one thing that really gets my back up is the way food is labeled. Oh man.

    IT MAKES ME WANT TO TEAR OFF MY CLOTHES AND DIE!! Trying to spin unhealthy food in a way so that people think it’s healthy is like the lowest bullshit ever. I see these products and I intentionally DON’T buy them because I feel like these companies are treating people like morons.

  4. I’m glad you’ve found a compelling voice within the architecture community championing a more sustainable approach to building. Architecture is prolific source of green house gases, possible the worst offender globally.

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/005914.html

    Check out Architecture 2030 for a policy-minded approach. Probably won’t be as moving as ol’ Murcutt.

  5. Todd, that’s really important info, and a great interview! I had no idea (or at least, I’d never seriously considered) that construction was such a significant environmental villain. It makes sense though, now that it’s been pointed out. And Franny, what a great theme to bring to the forefront – change has to start at the design and planning stage, and taking local culture and environments into account is hugely important. Sounds like it must have been an excellent talk.

    The upside of this troubling information (the ill-effects of construction) is that now I have a second legitimate reason to curse the construction workers who are *as we speak* making it impossible to do my work due to their noisy noisiness. Curses! But I think Ice T was right when he said don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

  6. You know how I feel, Todd. Rational Thinking, Reasonable Future. Sane Planning, Sensible Tomorrow.

    So few developments are designed for their surroundings. Many are not even minimally appropriate. It’s disheartening. I know that there are divisions of government responsible for sound development plans, but it seems like many have dropped the ball.

    Jan, Ice-T is always right.

  7. Food labels make me crazy. I have much concern if people actually look at a bag of chips or cookies and think because it has a green “sensible solutions” label on it, it’s a healthy snack.

    In “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollan says what’s interesting is that all these processed foods have health claims on the front; however, the actually healthy food (produce, etc) has no health claims whatsoever. Real food doesn’t need to defend itself in the grocery store, only the fake stuff.

    I think this whole labeling thing extends to personal care products. There is no regulation in Canada about what those kinds of products can say on the labels. There are products I see in the “health food stores” that call themselves organic and whatnot that actually aren’t. There’s no one to police them so they put whatever they want on the container.

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