After I got over my initial shock, I found their attitude refreshing and awesome. Vegetarianism, like much of consumer-oriented environmental sustainability, is regarded as a very black and white thing. You either follow the rules, or you don't. Something is green, or it’s not. If it tries to be and isn’t good enough, it’s greenwashing or fake. Labels tend to be like that, and I find them exhausting.
Green Labels Actually Aren't So Hot
Individuals and organizations need to move beyond the “green” label. It’s a very elementary stage of identification and branding, and inevitably leads to feelings of exclusion, elitism, guilt, and confusion about what “green” really is.
Restaurants have the right idea on this. When I go to brunch at Rx in Philadelphia, the menu labels their eggs as free-range, their burgers as grass-fed beef, and highlights the local farms they source from. They are very specific about how they’ve integrated environmental awareness into their entire menu, and they make it a part of the restaurant’s overall standard for quality food. Imagine if they had instead partitioned a portion of the menu as the “Green Section” and then listed a couple versions of regular dishes that are now “sustainable and natural.” The obvious implication is, of course, that the rest of the menu is factory-farming-as-usual. And it remains entirely non-obvious what was done to make the “Green Section” worthy of the tacky name.
The funny thing is, Green Works and Method take many of the same concrete actions. They both overwhelmingly use naturally-derived products, a lot of which are coconut-based or corn-based, they don't do animal testing, and their chemicals are biodegradable. Yet, Method does better at winning hearts and minds. If you dig deeper, you realize that your trust is justified. Because sustainability is baked into Method's culture, they don't stop at making their product environmentally friendly. They also use 100% recycled bottles, buy carbon offsets, work in green buildings, and build a cleaner supply chain, going so far as to build a biodiesel fleet to ship their products. They also pay attention to little things, like not using triclosan in their hand soaps. They simply care deeply about this stuff.
At the end of the day, the "green" label is not helpful. Labels become substitutes for talking about specific actions and, once there’s a label, it can claimed without any justifying action. This is what environmentalists are always on the look-out for, that "green" will be come meaningless as it gets adopted by corporations that only follow the letter of the law, if that. Or it can be claimed, and result in actions that don’t work for the claimant because it’s a one-size-fits-all definition. The rules that came with vegetarianism did not sit with me particularly well in college, for example.
Instead, green should be integrated into an overall philosophy, in a way that is a good fit and in a way that can be comfortably sustained. Companies should go green, but they shouldn’t blindly try it then flame out the way I did with vegetarianism. They should do it like my Korean barbeque friends, who found what works for them, and are now able to sustain a continued impact for their entire lives.