Greenwash damages credibility of State of Green Business Report

Posted on February 10, 2009


Intensity metrics are considered the next big thing in sustainability management and reporting.    They attempt to give an indication of the ‘good bang for the bad buck’.  Used properly, intensity metrics make more transparent the balancing decisions that face sustainable practitioners.  Unfortunately, they can also be used to obfuscate, or greenwash.  And it seems even the best of us fall for it.

Here’s “good news”  from Joel Makower’s State of Green Business report:

There’s good news, and more good news:  Each year, we are using less paper — and recovering more of what we use.

In 2007, we used 8,400 tons of paper in the course of generating a billion dollars of GDP, compared to 11,400 tons a decade ago, roughly a 27 percent drop.

And a graph showing a big drop: 



This is greenwash.  Here’s the same data, unobfuscated (intensity * GDP).   The green line shows the total amount of paper produced in the US hasn’t changed (the red line is the same Intensity as the graph above).   Other statistics also give an unchanging picture – the amount of paper produced per person is about static (varying between 302 to 340 kilos per person per year – swivel).  



The headline “Each year, we are using less paper”  is wrong.  Individually and as a collective we (the US “we”) are using the same amount of paper.    Unfortunately, this sits uneasily with other graphs about the US and paper (source, or a much bigger graph here).  



The apparent reduction in paper is entirely a red-herring justified by “growth”.   Per-person and as a whole, the US pile of paper (and associated environmental hole) has stayed about the same – still massively more than the rest of the world (and 10 times more than the UN’s estimate for literacy and communications needs). 

So where did Makower’s State of Green Business report go wrong?   The big clue is the cited source of the data: the American Forest and Paper Association.  I’ve trawled all over the AF&PA website looking for this data.  Unfortunately, and dealing a blow to their transparency and credibility, their “statistics” links to a bookshop.   I eventually found an Annual Report (2007).  At first glance, the Annual Report looks like an advert for the greens: images of trees and waterfalls surround headings of “clean air” and “clean water”.  But when you actually read the text, the extent of the greenwash becomes apparent –   the association proudly lists the environmental measures they have actively opposed recently : extended producer responsibility, cap and trade, content requirements,  renewable fuels, clean air, clean water, pollutant discharge and on and on (Annual report unless otherwise linked).     Despite the tag line of  “Improving tomorrow’s environment today”, this place doesn’t seem a credible source for a state of green business report. 

Mr Makower, I hope that your uncritical use of the data from the AFPA was an oversight. Otherwise  I’m seriously worried about the credibility of your report (which is unfortunate as I enjoyed it).