What's the Difference Between Green and Greener?

Kermit Doll at desk with computer keyboard

Fernanco De Sousa / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple of years ago I wrote a long piece here on Treehugger about the difference between "green" and "greener." To summarize, "green" is an ideal that very few things actually achieve — something that is 100 percent completely environmentally and socially sustainable. "Greener" is any step taken towards that ideal.

So an organic T-shirt is greener because it still requires energy and resources to produce and bring to market. A leaf falling off a tree onto the ground is green, for obvious reasons.

I think it's dangerous to conflate the two because it dilutes the power of something that's truly green and makes it all too easy for someone to claim the mantle of pure green based on a small step taken in the greener direction.

Over the past couple of months, I have been writing a lot of profiles of interesting people and I took the chance to ask them what they think about the difference between "green" and "greener." Their answers offer a range of interpretations that are worthy of a read. Enjoy!

Green marketer and media pro: Josh Dorfman:

What's the difference between green and greener?
More than meets the eye. Those of us tracking green products have grown accustomed to looking for signals like eco-friendly and nontoxic materials or natural and organic ingredients or recyclability. Those are essential attributes. But even a product as seemingly innocuous as an organic cotton T-shirt — sewn in a factory in China on machines made from a factory in Korea that bought parts for those machines from a company in Germany that got the raw materials for the metal from an iron ore mine in Australia that bought the machines to extract the ore from the Caterpillar company here in the U.S. that sourced parts for those machines from all over the world (and on and on) — is inextricably connected to the impacts of that entire global supply chain. So the concept of green is amorphous. The best we can do is make greener choices.

Medical marijuana entrepreneur Troy Dayton:

Green is keeping up with the sustainability practices of your peers. Greener is inspiring them to do more.

Composting worm guru Bentley Christie:

Interesting question, but rather challenging to answer I must say! The term “green” gets used so much these days, it’s hard to say for sure what it really means. Once you start tossing greener into the mix, I think it can end up sending the wrong message to a lot of people. It starts to sound a lot more like a competition — “my green is greener than your green!” — and the real point of all this can end up lost.
Most people don’t like feeling as though they are not doing a good job at something, and I think this is why militant environmentalism has never been all that effective (in the grand scheme of things).
My aim is always to try and emphasize the fun/interesting/rewarding side of the activities I’m passionate about (composting, gardening, etc.) rather than nagging people about their environmental responsibilities. Everyone wants to have fun, right? This way, being “greener” just means you’re having more fun!
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Eco coder Jereme Monteau:

Green and greener have become overloaded words. They have become tags for things that are associated with being less destructive and more sustainable. It means being conscious of the impacts the decisions you make have on the environmental system you are a part of. Being green seems to imply using less energy for example while being greener probably means not consuming that energy in the first place.
It seems that in the last 10 years, these words have lost their impact. People seem a little jaded with the concept of green, which is a little sad. But on the flip side it seems that some so-called green practices have actually permeated our lifestyles — CF light bulbs for example.
I've seen cloud computing companies use green messaging in their marketing to position their services as more efficient than others or as a way to save energy, which is hilarious to me. While computer hardware has become more powerful, the software that runs on it has become more and more bloated and less efficient, requiring more CPU cycles to achieve basic tasks like serving up Web pages.
I haven't run the numbers of anything, but I would guess that the power it takes to serve up your average website today is a much larger number than it was 10 years ago.
Regardless of the words we use to describe it, it is promising to see people trying to live a more examined life. In general we seem to be more concerned with their impact on the planet on its populations than we were 10 years ago.

Green marketing guru John Rooks:

Green is good. Greener is next. Green is a fixed. Greener is moving.
A green company can be inauthentic (doing good things for the marketing halo for example). Green is CSR [corporate social responsibility] for your company. Greener is CSR with your company.
“Green” can be co-opted; A moving target can’t. We need to embrace it — green or sustainability or whatever we’re calling it — as a moving target and hang on. The companies that understand and plan for that will thrive.

Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman:

In business, I don't know if you ever reach green — except maybe when you die and you become fertilizer (unless you're buried in a non-biodegradable coffin). I think we're all on a journey to greener, and we can't let green be the enemy of greener.

Nonprofit activist Lindsay Clarke:

Admittedly, the work Breaking Ground does is more humanitarian than environmental. We're 100 percent committed to sustainability, which for us means the ability of the communities we work with to reap the benefits of our contribution long after we've implemented a project and left. We're in the business of long-term solutions, not just relief. Implicit in that notion is environmental sustainability.
For instance, we work with palm oil producers. When grown en masse on monoculture plantations, palm trees strip the soil of its nutrients and render the land useless. The farmers we work with, however, are small-hold farmers. They rely on their land not just for the palm oil they sell in the market, but for the food they feed their families. Their food crops are interspersed among their palm trees, thus if they exhaust the potential of the land, they'll go hungry. (This, by the way, is not something any American NGO needs to tell them. They know far more about living sustainably than any city- or suburb-bred Westerner does. What we do is help them access micro credit to diversify their trade, and help them cut out the middlemen transporters who rob them of their profits.)
Thus, our work is both social and environmental, and I think an analogy can be made here regarding the "green" vs. "greener" question. Breaking Ground enables Cameroonians to implement their own local solutions to the problems they face as a result of living at the periphery of the world economy. We aren't trying to fundamentally restructure the world, at least not in the large scale. The coffee and cocoa farmers with whom we work, for instance, sell their products into the same global system that exploits them. We help them work that system by sustainably increasing their yields and getting a more fair price at the point of sale, but ultimately, we're not changing the system. In that sense, I guess we help them achieve a position in the world that is "fairer" but maybe not "fair."
I think the same relationship applies to "green" versus "greener." Being "greener" means making meaningful steps to the way in which you consume resources without fundamentally changing the structure of your life: using compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying organic food, driving a hybrid car, etc. To be "green" would mean starting from scratch and making real changes in the way you live: going off the grid, eating seasonally and growing your own organic food, or trading your car in for a bike or your own two feet. Trendy as the concept might be, I think few people actually achieve "green," but I think the "greener" movement is a great step in the right direction.

Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg:

I’ve been working on these issues — ecology, sustainability, organic, climate change — since the mid-1970s, and it’s clear to me, as well as scientists all over the world, that we cannot solve the planet’s health and environmental problems with just modest changes, and we can’t protect our families without making radical changes in how we eat. The good news? Eating delicious, healthy, tasty food is now easier than ever because of the vast array of organic food choices available.

Renewable energy entrepreneur Quayle Hodek:

There’s a big difference between thinking green and actually being green. To me, green ideas, lifestyles, choices, and products are those where the environmental impact is considered, and has at least a smaller negative impact than a traditional choice. Ideally of course, being green should actually speak to a net positive impact, instead of just harm reduction. So today’s ‘green’ is actually just the first step.
Greener is constantly pushing the boundary, moving the change to the edge of what’s possible and feasible. It’s learning, discussing, and choosing to engage in things like organic farming, renewable energy and efficiency, reducing and recycling. Those who are ‘greener’ are active participants in a process, an evolution. There’s a radical re-thinking of our place in the world, and the search for more healthy and fulfilling lifestyles.
Green doesn’t have to mean going back to a pre-industrial or pre-technological existence. It’s about doing more with less. It’s about not wasting resources and trashing the environment. Green implies respect for the planet and for others, by making positive choices, and being conscious of the range of effects our lifestyles have.

Energy efficiency entrepreneur Peter Troast:

The concept of green has suffered from so much misappropriation, to the point where pretty much anything you buy has some sort of leafy green symbol on it to demonstrate its “greenness,” from Cheetos to gasoline. I think, in a way, this is a good thing, because it shows that the concept of environmental consideration has entered the mainstream. I think “greener,” or my preferred term, “post-green,”is the next logical step, which will mean getting beyond the shallow, leafy green symbols and really starting to determine what our priorities should be. For example, if we were forced to choose between organic vegetables with a high embodied energy, or locally produced vegetables with genetic mutations, which should we pick?
A great example of this in the energy efficiency world is the debate going on right now about spray foam insulation. For particular applications, it’s one of the best insulations we have from an R-value and air sealing standpoint, but it has high embodied energy and global warming potential because of the blowing agents emitted during installation. Alternately, we have cellulose insulation that doesn’t have quite the R-value or air sealing qualities as spray foam, but it’s made from recycled materials. I think “greener” means really evaluating things on this level, and making the smartest decisions we can make from an informed, conscious standpoint. “Greener” requires a boatload of information, and education.

Outdoor filmmaker and entrepreneur Nick Callanan:

I talk to a lot of trendy people who say green is so in right now. I find that characterization obtuse; for, if green goes out of style, then what? Please not pastels again!?
"Greener" is actually a new term for me, but I do like the idea that people might be framing their responsibility to the earth in degrees. It's not just "I drive a Prius, so now I have earned the right to sleep with a clear conscience." On this scale, I suppose, it would be real good if a vast majority of humans arose from bed tomorrow and cranked their personal green dial all the way to maximum green.
However, I have to say, we lose a lot of collective energy when people frame it as a personal issue. We're all in this together, and the sooner people wake up and embrace the fact that we are all welcome members of a community which depends on a healthy earth for its survival and success, the better off we all will be.

Environmental journalist Brian Howard:

My friend Lori Bongiorno of Yahoo Green wrote a whole book about that: "Green, Greener, Greenest." I think it's really all about perspective; one person's greener is another's meh. I find that green noobs are often turned off by what they see as self-righteous or insidery debates over greenness, and so when talking to them, it's best to try to keep things as simple as possible. Once people make a few green changes, it's usually addictive, and they want to do more. Then they start to be naturally curious about what might be greener or greenest in each situation, and I think that's good.

Media maven and vegan Michael Parrish DuDell:

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of either of those words. But maybe that’s because I’ve been immersed in green for so many years. On a surface level, obviously, green versus greener speaks to the extent of one’s devotion. Digging deeper, I believe it’s probably more a battle between philosophy and execution.
What I don’t like about green versus greener is the inherit implication that one is better than the other. Activism is a buffet — not an entrée. What enlightens (i.e. interests) one person is not necessarily what will enlighten somebody else. To be an effective movement, we must not only respect that difference, but also create a community that embodies and facilitates that experience. While one might think “greenest” is naturally better than “greener” or “green,” I don’t think that’s necessarily true or particularly relevant to the goal at large. It’s important for the members of any social movement to respect the transition of its prospective constituents. We must be disciplined and wise enough to focus not only on the short-term achievements but also to build a sustainable (excuse the daunting buzz word) infrastructure that’s capable of standing the test of time. In other words, I’m less concerned about whether one embodies the ultimate green lifestyle but more interested that he or she fully understands the foundation of the cause and works each day to become a little better.

Environmentalists and mangrove preservationists Toby Jacobs and Scott Duncan:

Green is being eco-friendly as a luxury after everything else is taken care of. Greener is making the environment the only priority.
Hiker, musician, and photographer Leon Godwin:
I can’t say that I know. It’s getting to be such a useless word, as corporations begin to use it as a marketing and branding point. Don’t get me wrong, many companies are really trying to be green and are making great strides, but many more are using ‘Green’ for surface value only, to get the green-minded consumer at the point of purchase, and are not doing anything that could be considered sustainable. So I guess my take on it is that ‘green’ may only be a surface quality, a marketing term. ‘Greener’ are those companies that know sustainability is more economically viable in the long-term and are willing to forgo immediate monetary profits for increased profits in the health and well-being of the planet.
As an avid composter, I would also point out that the ‘greenest’ things on this planet are often actually brown.