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Rethinking environmentalism

Rethinking environmentalism

The struggle to live greener is actually a battle over consumers’ mindspace, according to an Oregon State University professor.

“We know from research that beliefs and attitudes are the two prevailing influences on consumer behavior and the first one that a company captures is the one that people act on,” said Keven Malkewitz, who studies the impact of product design on consumer decision-making at OSU.

When faced with the choice between a cheaper product and a greener one, opposing attitudes and beliefs might clash in an internal struggle. Reaching an accord between the two might prove frustrating, but achieving a deeper shade of green consumption is about picking a starting point and then moving the line back in gradual steps.

“People are typically all for environmentalism … until they have to pay extra,” Malkewitz said.

Many consumers know what value they place on green issues long before they reach for a product on the shelves, but choices become muddled by sheer glut of different green labeling and the more sinister practice of “greenwashing,” Malkewitz said.

Greenwashing is misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. Companies accomplish greenwashing in a variety of ways, from outright lying about product attributes to poorly defining claims and from covering hidden trade-offs to creating false labels that suggest a third-party endorsement where none exists.

It’s easy to see through such claims by giving thought to the “upstream process” it takes to produce any product, said Beth Myers-Shenai, a waste reduction coordinator with the Environmental Services Division of Marion County Public Works.

“It would be difficult for anyone to know all the trustworthy labels,” Myers-Shenai said. “Once a product is already on the shelf most of its major environmental impacts have already occurred.”

Hidden trade-offs are one of the most frequently exploited acts of greenwashing, Malkewitz said, accounting for about a third of all claims. For example, paper from a sustainably harvested forest is not necessarily environmentally preferable. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process such as greenhouse gas emissions or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.

“Knowing a product’s life cycle makes it easier to weigh such claims, but that can be a tall order for the average consumer,” Malkewitz said.

While it might seem time-consuming, one little step can lead to giant leaps.

By recycling – even a little – a person starts changing the way they think about consuming and environmental impacts begin playing a larger role in their decision-making, Myers-Shenai said.

“Once they reach that point, thinking about the reducing, reusing and recycling becomes second nature,” she said.

Of course, there’s always more that can be done.

“One of our big pushes right now is for people to replace products with experiences. It may not seem like driving up to a Trailblazer game would have less environmental impact than a new pair of shoes, but it does,” Myers-Shenai said.

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