Events & Media

February 24, 2016

Not-so-Simple Green
Two Bren scholars examine the dark side of “green” products

Santa Barbara, CA – If you buy a hybrid SUV rather than a conventional SUV of equal size, you naturally think that you have chosen the “green” option. But that vehicle is not greener than a conventional compact car that gets better mileage than the hybrid.

Roland Geyer

Trevor Zink

In another scenario, a consumer might purchase a new, non-essential, energy-efficient electronic device ― possibly because of advertising that suggests the “greenness” of the product ― instead of not purchasing any device at all. While the gadget may be greener than a similar but less-energy-efficient competitor, it is not a greener choice than purchasing no device at all.

These and other thorny particulars related to “green” products are the subject of an article by Bren School professor Roland Geyer and Trevor Zink (PhD 2014), an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University. Titled There is No Such Thing as a Green Product, it is the cover article for the spring 2016 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. (Note: Because of copyright rules, unless you have an e-mail address that ends in .edu, you will need to purchase rights to read the paper.)

Continuing with their hybrid, example, the authors write that the hybrid owner might also drive more than he or she otherwise would, perhaps taking a job that is farther from home or moving farther from work. That extra driving could require enough extra fuel and generate enough additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to offset the savings in both that were provided by the hybrid vehicle in the first place. That phenomenon, consuming more when a “green” product is involved, is known as the “direct rebound” effect, and, the authors write, the larger it is, the less green the hybrid vehicle is.

Roland Geyer
Trevor Zink

In the same vein, the authors note that while the light-emitting diode (LED) is in fact the most energy-efficient, longest-lasting, and greenest source of artificial lighting, studies show that as the cost of lighting has decreased, total consumption has increased dramatically. Here, the rebound results from consumers’ leaving lights on longer, lighting more areas, buying larger lit products (such as televisions), and finding whole new uses for lighting. In this example, the authors write, rebound can become “backfire” should the increase in lighting consumption “outweigh the increase in lighting efficiency and lead to a net increase in electricity consumption.”

Geyer and Zink are experts in life-cycle assessment (LCA), which quantifies the environmental impacts of products and services throughout their life cycle, from resource extraction through use and end of life. In the paper, they address the prevalence of purportedly green products, the problem of selecting benchmarks to which they are compared, the limitations of traditional LCA approaches to assessing green products, and the unintended effects such products have on markets. They also offer a new approach, which they refer to as “net green,” that addresses the problems surrounding current approaches to producing, identifying, and promoting environmentally friendly products. They write:

“If there is no such thing as a green product, is the pursuit of corporate environmental sustainability futile? Not at all, but the goal shouldn’t be as simplistic as trying to sell as many green products as possible. Efforts to increase the environmental sustainability of corporations should lead to an overall reduction in environmental impact, or be ‘net green,’ as we like to call it.

“We define net green thus: A business activity is net green if, and only if, it reduces overall environmental impact.”

The article is full of fresh thinking on the subject. Read the paper.

As bewildering as shopping for the "greenest" product can be, most consumers are not thinking, "What's the benchmark?" "Will my purchase cause a rebound effect?" "Is this product 'net green?'"