M
y wife and I got into it over the home recycling center. Cassie, bless her, is the kind of person who believes, against all evidence, in things like intentionality, moral imperative, the power of individual action, and so on. For her, recycling is an ethical touchstone. To not recycle elicits genuine horror and heartache. An empty garbanzo can tossed idly in the trash is an act verging on the wantonly malicious. While acknowledging its band-aid effect in the grand scheme of catastrophic climate change, she thinks it’s nonetheless morally vital to recycle, that there’s merit simply in the gesture, which at the very least underscores a causal relationship between humans and their environment.

I find this touching, and it makes me love my wife more than ever. But being of a darker, determinist bent (in sum: we’re all slaves to antecedent and arbitrary forces that we’re powerless to resist; nothing we do truly matters and all eventually comes to nothing), I’m inclined to disagree. The way I see it, recycling is an essentially hollow act, an armchair approach to accountability that makes nary a dent in the global cataclysm now upon us. Worse: the recycling bin, in all its redolent glory, does more harm than good. It’s a symbol not of action but of complacency, of what Naomi Klein calls “ecological amnesia” — our denial of the full reality of climate change. Simply put, recycling allows us to feel virtuous about our waste.

That, in essence, is what many corporations are up to these days with their ubiquitous “environmental sustainability” and “social responsibility” pledges: shifting our attention away from real issues (say, destructive, capricious, greedy business practices) to empty promises of a greener, saner, more equitable world. I didn’t know until recently that this has a name: “greenwashing.”

“Greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, who wanted to expose fraudulent “green” corporate claims he saw popping up all over the place. Back then, the most blatant offenders were fossil fuel extractors like Chevron and BP, and chemical giants Monsanto, Dow, and Dupont. Chevron, at the same time that it was violating the Clean Water Act, launched an ad campaign called “People Do,” which espoused the company’s heroic ecological record. Dupont — then the biggest polluter in the U.S. — touted its new double-hulled tankers in commercials featuring applauding seals. According to the environmental and human rights advocacy group CorpWatch, about one-quarter of all new U.S. household products in the ’80s were advertised as “recyclable,” “biodegradable,” “ozone friendly,” or “compostable,” although most were high on the Environmental Protection Agency’s ToxCast list of toxic chemicals.

“Greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, who wanted to expose fraudulent “green” corporate claims he saw popping up all over the place.

Greenwashing has since oozed into every industry’s advertising patter. Take Nestlé, which claims that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world,” overlooking the 40 billion plastic bottles that end up in landfills and oceans every year. Or Volkswagen, whose website points to many “environmental commendations,” but which recently admitted to a vast conspiracy to cheat U.S. emissions tests.

But also consider this innocuous takeout cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write, with its familiar “Renewable Compostable Sustainable” triangle and the soothing words, “You’re making a difference!” According to the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, Americans toss out 25 billion disposable coffee cups a year, each one amounting to a quarter-pound of CO2 emissions (which makes me, with my five or six or seven takeout cups a week, personally responsible for no less than 65 pounds of coffee-related carbon every year, a fraction of my annual 50,000-pound footprint that comes from my home, car, air travel, and daily consumption, according to carbonfund.org). And despite the work of groups like Fair Trade, coffee production relies overwhelmingly on cheap labor in developing countries like Colombia, where the beans used to brew my cup originated, and where the vast majority of coffee farmers live in crippling poverty. So, by one important yet easily overlooked measure, I am making a difference: I’m contributing to a global tide of waste and exploitation that stretches from my hand all the way to the Amazon Basin.

Greenwashing, in short, is everywhere, all the time. In a survey of 1,000 products among six big-box American retailers, the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice found just one that didn’t commit some form of greenwashing. “Corporations are falling all over themselves to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious,” says Greenpeace’s website. “The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”

At the retail level, greenwashing makes perfect sense. For many of us — maybe even most of us — our purchases tilt the needle of our moral compass, reflecting who we imagine ourselves to be and what kind of world we want to inhabit. A recent Nielsen poll found that 66 percent of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more for “environmentally sustainable” products. Among millennials, that number jumps to 72 percent. Advertising execs, of course, realize this, and they aim at satisfying that need. You’ve probably heard of “cause marketing,” the notion that by drinking Starbucks or buying TOMS shoes, we’re doing our part to beat cancer and save Bangladeshi garment slaves from lives of unrelenting misery. Greenwashing plays the same trick on our consciences: SHOP HERE AND SAVE THE WORLD.

“Most of the time, ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ claims are just advertising spin. They’re a disguise — a false salve for your conscience.”

“We want to feel good about ourselves and we want to believe that we can do something about the environment,” Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of CorpWatch, says. “So companies try to convince us that by buying their products, we can. But most of the time, ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ claims are just advertising spin. They’re a disguise — a false salve for your conscience.”

A blunter way to say this is that companies are preying on the best and most vulnerable of human instincts: empathy. Our brains are hardwired to care for others, to respond to suffering; we feel good helping, whether by trying to mitigate our impact on the environment, the endemic hardships of the underclass, or both. But we’re hobbled in our ability to do much about it. So, in a feeble attempt to parse barbarous corporate robbery and environmental depredation, we recycle; we drink Equal Exchange Organic Colombian coffee; we become vegans; we wring our hands at the checkout line a thousand times a year, making imperfect and often abstract decisions that might best reflect our values.

It’d be easy to detail here all the fiendishly inventive ways that corporations miscast their ecological bonafides. But since we’re all going to keep buying things, it’s worth finding some brands that don’t greenwash, that instead appear to be genuine about environmental stewardship and addressing the incompatibility of profit and human dignity, and many outdoor brands seem to be just that. They are, it must be said, at least trying. The more honest among them are even admitting to ethical shortcomings inherent in running a global business. Which isn’t to say that greenwashing doesn’t happen in the industry — only that not every company is hellbent on drawing gullible American consumers into a diabolical campaign to swindle indigenous people out of their birthright. And for the purposes of lessening some of the checkout-line agony mentioned above, here are five that have their hearts and wallets in the right place:

Patagonia. A corporate bellwether in environmental and social responsibility, Patagonia was among the first to investigate its production practices and to find ways to ameliorate its impact on the land and the people that are the sources of their products. It altered its entire supply chain for wool, for example, to reflect “holistic grazing practices” and to “restore long-degraded grassland to health,” helping keep sheep ranching in Patagonia, Argentina, from dying out. The company also consulted animal welfare experts like Temple Grandin to ensure compassionate treatment of its animals. The company has also donated about $75 million to environmental nonprofits and community-based groups over the years, including $10 million after 2016’s Black Friday sales. They also struck fair-trade deals to ensure a living wage for factory workers.

Black Diamond. Following Patagonia’s example, Black Diamond recently gave 1 percent of its online sales to The Nature Conservancy for its work with the Canyonlands Research Center in Utah. The company’s website couldn’t be more transparent about its “low impact” code of conduct — from its manufacturing and transportation footprint to energy conservation at its headquarters and production facilities — as well as fair labor practices. Energy renewal initiatives at their Salt Lake City facilities, including wind and solar power, have eliminated more than 220 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

Nike. Believe it or not, the old colossus of global exploitation has become a leader of innovative community projects aimed at environmental stewardship across the globe. The company has tackled its sweatshop problem (a decade ago, its Indonesian workers earned as little as 14 cents an hour) by raising wages and publishing regular reports of conditions in its overseas factories. Upwards of 70 percent of Nike’s footwear and apparel now use recycled materials, part of the company’s “closed loop” production pledge to generate as little waste as possible. Since 2012, Nike has eliminated nearly 3.5 million pounds of fabric scraps.

Eddie Bauer. Like Nike, Eddie Bauer has worked hard to address its backwards labor policies — sewers at its Taiwan factory once earned $1 a day while manufacturing a $45 shirt. The brand has embraced ethical practices and standards throughout its supply tiers, including the prohibition of forced and child labor, and guaranteed collective bargaining and appropriate compensation for all of its workers. In partnership with the conservation group American Forests, the company has worked to protect and restore threatened forests throughout the U.S. and Canada, and has helped plant more than seven million trees in 150 unique ecosystems over the past two decades.

The North Face. Beginning in 2017, the most ubiquitous jacket on college campuses — North Face’s Denali fleece — was made out of 100 percent recycled material. The company has announced similar plans for all of its polyester fabric, as well as various projects to offset carbon emissions — such as planting 37,000 trees in the Lower Mississippi region and helping protect California’s redwoods, which have together removed nearly 53,484 tons of CO2 — promising to “make sustainability a fundamental component of everything we design.”

Even given these companies’ good intentions, the question becomes unavoidable: is any company truly sustainable? Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, provides a succinct answer in his book The Responsible Company (a rare literate gem of the business-bio genre, written with Vincent Stanley): “No human economic activity is yet sustainable,” he writes. “[E]verything we all do at work, unless you happen to sell organic seeds or night-soil compost, hurts the environment more than it gives back.” Almost all manufacturing, Chouinard goes on to say, no matter how nobly intended, produces carbon, usually an awful a lot of it. Chouinard, who wrestles mightily with the moral fallout of running a billion-dollar brand, notes that every single one of Patagonia’s organic cotton polo shirts comes from an irrigated field that requires 700 gallons of water — enough to meet the daily needs of 900 people — and generates 21 pounds of carbon during its journey to a Reno warehouse. That’s a remarkable admission from the leader of the world’s greenest big business. Despite Patagonia’s earnest ecological and social commitments, the company is failing dramatically. If corporate “environmental sustainability” is, in Pratap Chatterjee’s words, purely advertising spin, then all environmental advertising counts as greenwashing.

It can be treacherous to confuse consumption with action. To paraphrase Chouinard, we have no business applying the word “sustainable” to our purchases, in much the same way that we have no business feeling morally vindicated by our home recycling centers. Shopping is bad for the environment. Buying stuff will not bring us a greener future.

“No human economic activity is yet sustainable. Everything we all do at work, unless you happen to sell organic seeds or night-soil compost, hurts the environment more than it gives back.” — Yvon Chouinard

“The idea that consumer choice can lead to significant change is silly,” says CorpWatch’s Chatterjee. “People often think, ‘I want to help the environment, so what can I buy?’ And the answer is: as little as possible. You’re not going to change the world by buying a Patagonia fleece.” (A few years ago, Patagonia had an ad suggesting pretty much just that: “Don’t Buy This Shirt,” it read. Which, of course, had the opposite effect on sales).

I’m no class warrior. I don’t fault brands for trying to make money, within reason. Businesses are in business to sell things and be profitable, and unfortunately, it’s more profitable to care less about the environment and pay workers as little as possible. This is the Faustian deal we’ve made with free market capitalism. And I’m as invested in it as anyone. My heart flutters at the sight of the latest outdoor wonderments — this year it’s inflatable hammocks and truck-mounted rooftop tents. I buy useful, well-made stuff, but like anyone, I also buy things that are vanity objects I’ll toss in two years, and fuck the ozone and your moral grandstanding and Indonesian child laborers — get back to work!

But then, here are some hard facts: Despite our crowing about the environment, U.S. consumption has skyrocketed in the last decade. Greenhouse emissions continue to rise unchecked and show no signs of slowing down. Current per-capita carbon emissions for Americans are ten times the global average. Consequently, our world is starting to vanish, and in many instances has already gone.

So what can be done? What ethical choices remain for those who want less waste and suffering in the world? It’s worth recalling that all meaningful environmental and social change in this century has been wrought not by corporations but by ordinary people and advocacy groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the League of Women Voters. The hard-won victories of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the nuclear non-proliferation treaties and thousands of local conservation guarantees, civil rights and equal protection laws, came about not only because of Yvon Chouinard or Bill and Melinda Gates, but because thousands and thousands of obscure citizens decided to do something about it.

Probably my wife is right. We have a moral obligation to act, if not for ourselves, then for others — for people of the Kiribati atoll in the Pacific Ocean threatened by rising sea levels, for farmers in Sudan, Vietnam, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, for residents of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Action in a sense means inaction. It means deciding not to press the “complete your purchase” button on the new merino wool hoody and Gore-Tex trail shoes. That’s a tough one, I know. But isn’t part of what sustains the outdoor industry a sense of accountability, of indebtedness, to something larger than ourselves?

“You can make a purchase, or you can work for justice,” says Chatterjee. “And that’s a powerful thing. If you don’t strive for equity, you’ve really failed. Because that’s solvable. It might be too late for the planet, but how we treat others is the real fight for the future.”

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