Scales of Green

The Green Grail

Oct 09

Posted: under Green Products.
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Perceval finding the holy grail...but was it made from recycled gold?

Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
King Arthur: To seek the Holy Grail.

Bridgekeeper: What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?
Bridgekeeper: Huh? I… I don’t know that.
[he is thrown over]
Bridgekeeper: Auuuuuuuugh.

Sir Bedevere: How do know so much about swallows?
King Arthur: Well, you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.*

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

A growing number of consumers in today’s marketplace are searching for a new kind of holy grail — the “Green Product.”  Like King Arthur and his knights, these consumers are often motivated by both a sense of personal sin and guilt and a desire to discover some kind of perfection and beauty.  In some ways, they are questing after the eternal life that drove those same knights as well, in their belief that finding their “Green Grails” will buy “sustainability” for themselves and their society, and the gratitude of future generations.

And so we set out into the wilderness of the market, searching for the greenest cars, energy sources, computers, jewelry, and food products.  What’s better — the Prius or the Insight?  A Dell laptop or an Apple MacBook?  Organically-grown or locally-sourced food?  We listen to green claims from companies about their products, and to gatekeepers who judge the greenness of those claims, and in some cases the greenness of the seekers themselves.  But who are these retailers and gatekeepers to make these claims?  And what exactly are they claiming — what do they mean by “green?”  Do they really point the way to the Grail?

In order to answer these questions, we must therefore, like King Arthur, be armed with knowledge to judge these claims for ourselves and to test those who block or point the road for us with our own questions.  We must know something about the underlying science used to evaluate a product’s environmental performance.  We must know something about the values and ethical tradeoffs involved in the design of products.  We must know something about the people and organizations manufacturing and evaluating products, and the political dynamics surrounding them.  And we must know something about the other scales of environmental performance beyond the product itself — the overall performance of the company making it, the performance of the country it is made in, and the lifestyle of the individuals who use it.

And yes, we may even need to know the air-speed of an unladen swallow, African or European…

To help us with our preparation and our journey, I will explore in this section of the website examples of green product claims by companies, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and private rating agencies.  I will look at the transparency of these claims, their credibility and underlying science, and their usability and “understandability.”  I will also look into who exactly is making the claims and is accountable for them.  Where its relevant, I’ll also discuss some of the implications of these claims for different actors and policies, and society’s more general quest for improving our collective environmental performance and protecting our planet, perhaps the ultimate “Green Grail.”

Watch the Monty Python scene:

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