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Forbes takes a contrarian view: don’t buy green

cherrygarcia.jpgForbes argues that green consumers should lay off the green goods (free registration required). Items like hybrid cars, organic food, and Ethos bottled water cause more environmental harm than help, the article claims. I like a good contrarian argument probably even more than the next guy, so let’s see how Forbes’ examples stand up.

Say no to hybrids
The entirely odd criticism of hybrid cars rests on the foundation that they cost more than conventional cars. True enough, but what does this have to do with environmental impact? “The hybrid’s steep price tag is a signal that, directly or indirectly, it consumes a lot of the earth’s resources.” It is? Really? Many green goods carry a price premium over their conventional counterparts. The premium usually reflects the fact that — wait for it — these items are more expensive to produce. Although a higher price tag could in theory reflect heavier resource use, it could also reflect about a thousand other things. To take only the most obvious of about a billion possible counterexamples: electricity from wind costs more to produce than electricity from coal.

There is a potentially interesting point to be made about the energy content of hybrids. As the article notes, hybrids contain a lot more copper and nickel than conventional cars, and the mining of these metals can extract a heavy toll on the earth. I would be interested in seeing a careful assessment of the environmental pros and cons of hybrid technology. But rather than doing any of the heavy analytical lifting, the article just punts: “Calculating the gains and losses would be quite a chore, even for an engineer.”

While I admire the baldness of this statement, I suggest next time calling an engineer.

Ban organic
The article next takes aim at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which presumably is meant to stand in for organic grocery items more generally. Because the milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is free of hormones, the reasoning goes, the cows are less efficient than they otherwise would be. They therefore emit more methane and require more beautiful Costa Rican cloud forest to be bulldozed for pasture (or something). Forbes’ conclusion: “Green consumers should buy Breyers instead.”

This line of reasoning is so weirdly divorced from reality that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s set aside the ethical considerations of treating cows as production units whose sole virtue is efficiency. Let’s further set aside the fact that no one with any knowledge of how food is produced would ever claim that modern farming practices are good for the environment (fun fact: 80% of the energy content of supermarket produce comes from fossil fuels).

Instead let’s be hardnosed about this and just look at the economics of the issue. Ben & Jerry’s costs about twice as much per ounce as Breyers. Is this because it causes twice the environmental degradation as Breyers? Of course not. Ben and Jerry’s uses more expensive ingredients and carries a brand premium. Assuming demand for ice cream is reasonably elastic, shifting consumption to Ben & Jerry’s means less ice cream consumed overall, which means reduced environmental impact. Our conclusion: Buy the hippie frozen milk.

Steer clear of ethical bottled water
Finally, the article goes after Ethos bottled water, a Starbucks-owned brand that donates a portion of proceeds to developing clean water supplies in poor countries. We’d be better off drinking tap water and making a donation directly to Care USA, says the author.

This is pretty small beer, but here at last we agree. The energy content of bottled water is ludicrously high, particularly if you’re having it sent over from Fiji, where the hydrogen and oxygen is apparently less tainted than elsewhere in the universe (until it sees the inside of a container ship, I suppose). Add in the disposable plastic bottle, and you’ve got yourself a small scale environmental disaster.

Don’t like the taste of tap? Get yourself a Brita filter and a Nalgene. And remember to send that check to Care.

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