Today I’m speaking on a panel at the PSFK conference about “Greenwashing.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term – “Greenwashing” is the act of trying to pass off unsustainable products as eco-friendly through branding, packaging or mislabeling. I love to see companies make an effort to go green, and so I inherently want to trust companies when they say their products are sustainable. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent, as the “green bubble” inflates, that you always need to read the fine print. While preparing my talk on greenwashing today, I had to search for examples and frankly, the bad apples weren’t hard to find. The most entertaining example of greenwashing I found was this editorial piece in Businesweek about how “green” the Swiffer is.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Swiffer is a plastic contraption designed to replace the good old fashion mop. It is sold with a box of disposable, plastic-wrapped, chemical-soaked pieces of paper that go straight from your floor to landfill, where the chemicals leach into the ground. Yet the designer of the Swiffer, Gianfranco Zaccai, has recently published a piece in Businessweek magazine about how he is contributing to the greening of the planet with this device:
Cleaning the floor with an old-fashioned mop and detergent is a messy and unpleasant job that uses many gallons of hot water and great amounts of detergent every week in millions of homes around the world. The water, the energy needed to heat that water, and the environmental impact of dumping the detergent into the waste stream are terribly costly, and all for a job no one likes doing anyway.
The ironies of this article haven’t gone unnoticed and a small debate has been raging over at Treehugger – is the Swiffer an example of sustainable design? Continuum’s President and CEO Gianfranco Zaccai assert that the Swiffer saves gallons of water every year, then calls on all of us to think about our grandchildren when designing for the future, to follow his example. We believe that the Swiffer story is an excellent example of greenwashing – making an unproven claim about a product or company’s green benefit, when the product in fact has a negative environmental impact.
The Swiffer requires the continual purchase of toxic chemical sheets that wind up in landfill – hardly a sustainable design solution. Certainly, the Swiffer has created a financially sustainable model for P&G, and people claim to “love” their Swiffers. (Including our friends and family – we’ve been getting into some pretty heated Swiffer debates at home). The success of the Swiffer has opened up an opportunity for true eco-innovation – Method Home has re-envisioned a floor-cleaning mop with non-toxic, compostable sweeping cloths. Which is more important – creating a design that people love, or one that does no harm?
What do you think? Green or greenwash?
JENNIFER VAN DER MEER
Jennifer is a leader in brand and product innovation, and is a founding principal at research design house Risqué Consulting. A former Wall Street analyst and economist, Jennifer transitioned into the design industry upon graduating with an MBA from HEC in Paris. She has held strategy and executive management positions at Organic, Inc., Frog Design, and Fahrenheit 212. A leader in the green design community in NY, Jennifer serves as chapter chair of o2-NYC, and lectures on the topic of sustainable innovation.
. She created Inhabitat in the Spring of 2005 as a way to catalog her endless search for new ways to improve the world through forward-thinking, high-tech, and environmentally conscious design. Educated at Brown University, where she received a B.A. in Art Semiotics, and Central St. Martins, where she received an M.A. in Design Studies, she currently resides in New York City, which so far has been good for her obsession with rooftop gardens and vegan junk food restaurants.