The color “Green” symbolizes sustainability, but sustainability can mean different things to different people. Some things labeled as “green” by one group may be consider not-so-green by another group. Exactly what does it mean for a thing to be green?

Let’s look at our fundamental process for calling something “green”. Forests are green. Lawns are green. The world is covered with living plants that are — mostly — green. So it can be no wonder that green evokes a sense of prosperity and fecundity. Where there are noticeable seasons, green also conjures a sense of renewal. Green is the color sometimes associated with hope and eternity. Leaves sprout every spring. Humans couldn’t exist without plants, and because we intuit this at the most basic level, we equate the color green with sustainability.

Sustainability is basically maintaining a balance in the flow of energy and resources on and around Earth’s surface. In nature, there is no waste. All things are reused by some other constituent of the environment. When a bird dies, it falls to the ground. Composting makes short work of the bird’s remains. Compost becomes nutrients for plants. The plants grow and provide food for the animals. Animals poop and die, completing the circle of sustainability. All of this is possible because the energy provided by the sun gets transmuted into different forms along the way. So long as the sun shines, life on earth seeks balance. That’s sustainability.

Can we measure what it means for a thing to be green?

The kinds of things that might be labeled green for this discussion can be broken down into three sections:

  • useful human-made tools,
  • the process used to make those tools,
  • and the company or people using the process to make the tools.

All tools are things made to provide or perform a convenience. Clothing, pencils, cheesy puffs — all of these things provide convenience. For example, a cup is a human-made tool. It provides the convenience of storing a volume of liquid ready for some intended use. The process used to make the cup could be pottery, wood-lathing, plastic molding, metal forging, etc. The cup maker could be a person or a machine. Each method or process for making a cup exacts some social and environmental cost. The method that exacts a smaller social and environmental cost while providing the more efficient convenience and higher social and environmental benefit is greener than other methods. More often than not, the greater the convenience provided by a tool, the larger the social and environmental cost exacted. 

Waste is any material or component that cannot be used in creating something else. It has to be stored or stockpiled, thus becoming an inconvenience. Waste always exacts social and environmental cost.

If I own a carpet, I could clean it two ways: I could bring the carpet outside, hang it over a tree limb at whack it with a carpet beater until most of the dirt falls out of the fabric of the carpet, and then bring the cleaned carpet back inside. Alternatively, I could buy a vacuum cleaner with an electric engine that will suck the dirt out of the carpet. I won’t even have to move the carpet from the floor. The rug beater could be built by one person out of some willow twigs in an afternoon.  The vacuum cleaner would require months or even years to design and fabricate, usually by a large company with many people working for it. It would require a stored energy source and various resources extracted from the ground.

The carpet beater requires a considerable amount of manual labor, while the vacuum cleaner requires considerably less labor. Nobody want to beat a carpet. It’s strenuous work. It’s much more convenient to use a vacuum if it can be made affordably. The carpet beater can break down into compost when it’s no longer useful.

The vacuum cleaner’s plastic and metal parts may not be reusable, especially when constituent components have been laminated together into a difficult-to-recover fashion like vacuum hoses, fiberglass-hulled boats, steel radial tires or garden hoses. The environmental cost for creating and using a vacuum cleaner far exceeds the cost of creating and using a carpet beater. The carpet beater is a much greener solution because of it’s lower environmental cost even though it’s a more labor-intensive method of cleaning carpets. 

Victorian Carpet Beater vs Modern Vacuum Cleaner.

More often than not, a tool that is less processed or hand-made often uses far fewer resources in its creation and is therefore greener than the industrially fabricated tool that better augments convenience. Additionally, greener tools are generally less convenient and far more environmentally friendly.

However, modern manufacturers are looking at methods for greener design. A well-designed human tool or convenience should be created with these things in mind:

  • Use as little non-renewable energy as possible.
  • Use as few non-renewable material resources as possible.
  • Break down into useful components after the tool has served its purpose.
  • Leave no waste as a byproduct of its use.

Let’s ask some questions, remembering that by “green” we’re talking about sustainability and not the color:

  • Can a product manufacturer be green?
  • Can a human be green?
  • Can a non-renewable resource provider be green?
  • Can a renewable resource provider be green?
  • Can a society be green?
  • Can a building be green?
  • How do we determine what makes some of these things green?

More specific questions:

  • My company manufactures computer parts. The parts are produced by mining ore out of the ground. I know my products are made from non-renewable resources, but I have a program that allows people to return their old computer parts. I recycle the parts that I am able to. The other parts get landfilled. We have a recycle bin at our facility. We use composting toilets and have low-flow lavatories, but our computer parts do use a lot of water to prepare the parts before they’re shipped. Is my company green?
  • Knowing that my company (above) is non-renewable-resource-based, is it okay for me to label my company as “green” if I’m following green guidelines provided by other community members who also make stuff that uses non-renewable resources?
  • I live in a small apartment in a large city. I use cloth bags and glass jars and only buy things in the bulk section. I don’t bring home anything that comes in a can or a jar that I can’t reuse. I don’t use any plastic bottles. I could fit almost all of my refuse for a year into a quart-sized mason jar. I walk or bicycle to work. I have a cell phone and two computers and two dogs. Am I a green individual?
  • I live in a co-housing unit in a small city. We share a kitchen, a bathroom and a living space. Bedrooms are separate. I also use cloth bags and glass jars, and only buy things in bulk. I don’t use anything made from plastic. I walk to work. I’m vegan. I have no cell phone and only use a community-available computer at the library. I eat only organic foods and have no pets. I have a worm compost bin under my bed. Everyone in the co-housing community tries to live up to a standard of green-ness. Am I more green than the individual above?

More general questions:

  • It is right for a coal company that has started producing wind farms to call itself green?
  • Is just striving to be greener than we were yesterday enough to consider ourselves green?
  • Is there always an ecological component to being green?
  • Are spent nuclear reactor rods waste?
  • Is compost waste?

There are no easy answers here. There seems to be a spectrum of what we might consider green. I have friends who are self-labeled granola-heads who try to do everything they can to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost) and Rethink. Their entire lives are taken up with the cause of living green. The other side of the spectrum includes companies that pull non-renewable resources out of the ground, but realize that those resources won’t be around much longer, and so begin to diversify into researching and developing renewable resources, with the understanding that at some point they must transition to an all-renewable platform.

“Green” is what we make of it. From my standpoint, it’s important that the precepts of “green-ness” are not co-opted for political or monetary short-term gain at the expense of long-term social and environmental sustainability. How we manage that as a society is up to us.

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