The goal: thoughtless environmentalism

If you work with companies in the vague area of "sustainability" like I do, you quickly realize we are moving towards a world where you will be an efficient, environment-positive consumer without even realizing it.  And that is a beautiful thing.
Increasingly, companies on a global and local basis realize that resource efficiency is the name of the game.  They can no-longer afford to operate the way they have in the past; soaring fuel and commodity prices, plus global concern about water shortages, have made that obvious.  Add increasing government regulation on top of that, and you have a strong case for creating a more sustainable business.  Now, there is a regular drumbeat coming from companies that have adopted more efficient, environmentally friendly practices and are seeing a positive effect on their bottom line:

Staples reduced electricity use by more than 5 million kWh in U.S. distribution facilities by launching a contest among the facilities to identify and implement energy efficiency improvements.
Burt's Bees cut its electricity use by 14 percent per sales dollar and reduced manufacturing related water use by more than 20 percent.

The list goes on.  One recent item that drove this concept home to me was a column in Environmental Leader about green advances in the billboard advertising industry (full disclosure; it was written by my boss). Unbeknownst to the world at large, this advertising sector has made major strides.  For example, all old billboard posters used to be made of non-recyclable PVC vinyl.  Now, companies have developed a new polyethylene material called Eco-Flexx that can be recycled and provides superior print quality.  It has been so successful that the Outdoor Advertising Association of America has announced that they will no longer accept the old-style posters as of 2009.

I'm betting that when you think of environmentally friendly products, billboards never would have crossed your mind.  But that is the way industry is evolving.

The concept of thoughtless environmentalism is making its way into consumer goods as well.  According to research, people don't want to have to think about which product is the most eco- or fair-trade-friendly.  They want companies to provide "edited choices" for their purchases, and companies are obliging.

As you read this, cereal companies are redesigning their boxes to enhance recycling and reduce waste.  Stores are providing compostable bags.  Athletic companies are designing shoes that require little or no toxic glue.  And governments are adopting production and waste standards that will green up entire product categories considerably without you ever having to do more than dump your trash in recycling bins.

Some may ask: Is this a good thing?  After all, the goal of nearly every environmental campaign since the dawn of time has been about creating an educated populace who will demand the right things from companies and governments.  If products and processes become so thoughtlessly green, will we stop watch-dogging the world so standards slip when no-one is looking?  Will thoughtlessly green just become thoughtless?

I think we are a long, long way from that danger.   But won't we all welcome a day when the question "paper or plastic" is no longer asked?  Won't the world be a cleaner place when you don't have to select your electricity source as a special add-on, but trust that it comes from clean, renewable energy as a matter of course?