EcoTip: What Makes a Product (or Service) 'Green' ?

Last night we at the Sydney launch of Australia's Green Pages. These impressive directories catalogue some 5,000 Australian green products and services. During an open forum the question was raised regarding the selection criteria for the listings. The response was given that after much research a 50 page document had been developed to help filter the entries. But the point was still made that even though it was easy to include certified organic goods, selecting a green car or sustainable architect posed more difficulties. In post forum discussions a similar question was posited: By what process are products selected for inclusion on TreeHugger. And we were recently asked by a magazine, "Is there a definition/list of criteria you use for 'what is green'?" With interest growing in leaps and bounds in this very issue, it's a question we've receive heaps. Strangely we don't have any hard and fast rules, but thought we'd at least share with you some of the responses we have provided in the past. (See after the fold.) By no means definitive, but Your constructive observations are, as always, welcome.a. A green product or service is one that is both environmentally and socially responsible. That is, they are accountable to, and respectful of, the places and people that provide and use them.

b. Sustainability is the relationship many people dream of. It is an investment in the long term. It is saying you care for me, so I'll look after you too. For as long as I'm able. (However humanity's current relationship with our planet is more that of a one night stand. Lots of immediate pleasure, but no thought for the future. We've had our way with Nature, and now its morning. Looking across the sheets he/she doesn't appear as attractive as we remember. We have depleted that which was once beautiful. Leaving behind dry, pitted skin; black heads; zits; patchy hair, and so on.) To be sustained is to be nourished. Sustainability is about a heightened equality. About giving, more than taking. Sustainability is saying, "I want to you to be here longer than me."

c. Innately we care about the planet. Given the choice of a holiday on a unspoilt beach (with clear turquoise water lapping white sand and palm fronds framing the sunset) or inside a Vegas casino (with a cacophony of noise, lights and garish colours) which would most people chose? The unsullied nature. Though most of us spend 90% of our lives indoors. Buying 'green' gives us a connection with something we know we have lost. And as the icebergs of climate change and peak oil gash the hull of our ship 'The Global Economy', we cling to these green products like buoyancy vests. They provide hope that we will survive this uncertain future we have created for ourselves. And if these vests look snappy too, well hey, what a bonus.

d. At Treehugger we seek out products and services that:
1. are clever, innovative, creative, That is, they challenge the status quo.  
2. have mainstream appeal. The Person On The Street (ie, not-yet-treehuggers) would look at them and think "Hey, that's cool".
3. demonstrate care for the people who provide the materials, as well as make and supply the product.
4. demonstrate care for the ecological community (plants, animals and ecosystems) that support their production, supply and use.
4. use materials, which are relatively benign in their 'extraction' phase, such as: reused, recycled, renewable, organic, etc.
5. use materials that address cradle-to-cradle or end-of-useful-life concerns. Ideally the product's materials are either (a.) reusable and/or recyclable in our industrial processes or (b.) biodegradable, in that they can be safely returned to the soil.
6. address the energy used in their production, supply and/or use. Maybe the energy saved in their use is greater than that used to make them, for example. Or maybe the company buys 'green energy' or subscribes to a form of climate neutral credits.
7. are functional and easy to use. They may be fun, beautiful or artistic, but ultimately they must serve a useful purpose.
8. promote a thoughtful lifestyle, where more time is spent embracing the living, than the inanimate.

e. Sometimes it can be a bit hard to know the exact criteria for what is green and what is not, and it's not so much that they don't exist, but that they are often relative. A Prius is green relative to almost all cars on the road, but it's still pretty dirty compared to a well-designed electric car, which is dirty compared to a bicycle. So it always depends to what you are comparing to.

f. Green is almost an ideal, a path, a direction to walk towards to improve things. It is rarely a static destination, though once we are far enough along the way, we will live with less than what the Earth can sustainably produce (ecological footprint of less than one Earth), and that'll be a day to celebrate.

g. Aside from the obvious environmental considerations, 'green' or responsible design also often addresses those not included in a mainstream design aesthetic. For example, shelter for the homeless or refugees, locally repairable water pumps for people eking out a subsistence living, devices that make life more convenient for arthritis sufferers (try opening a bottle top with fingers locked into a claw), or any other ailment. Responsible design is more interested in 'quality of life', than in 'standard of living.'

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