Journalists Use Term "Green" More Often, But What Does It Mean?

April 15, 2010


"Green" seems to be the new black.

In November 2007, NBC Universal launched its first "Green Week." According to the company's Web site, the media giant presented more than 150 hours of "environmentally themed content across multiple platforms," and continues to hold twice-yearly weeks to deliver "green-themed content" to its viewers and online users.

Among other things, the NBCU Web site contains guidelines for TV production professionals to help reduce their environmental impact — a part of NBCU's plan "to bring an environmental perspective" to the work it does. The guide also says it will change "to keep pace with the constant advances in the field of sustainability."

Over the past few years, journalists have also begun to casually use the terms "green" and "sustainable" when reporting. Many corporations and advertisers have jumped onto the "green" and "sustainable" bandwagon. However, according to an informal e-mail survey of Society of Environmental Journalists members, the use of these terms has its critics.

"I don't use either term," wrote Seth Borenstein, a science writer for the Associated Press, in an e-mail. "Green is too wishywashy and could mean just about anything, and usually does. Sustainable is too wonky and inaccessible. And for that matter, what is sustainable and what is not?"

Green background
"Green" and "sustainable" aren't recent additions to our vocabulary.

"Both 'green' & 'sustainable' are very old buzz-words, in use as early as the 1930s and perhaps even earlier, with quite a lot of overlapping usage, but different implications," wrote Merritt Clifton, editor of the newspaper Animal People. "The concept has gradually evolved since the 18th century and even influenced political ideology," wrote Clifton.

However, heightened environmental awareness has driven up the popularity of both terms when it comes to taking care of nature. "I think it's something that over the last couple of decades has been more visible," said Sharon Kuska, architecture professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "because of issues coming to the forefront like climate change (and) shortage in natural resources."

Marketers seem to have a different agenda for these terms. For example, although NBCU has gone all out to promote green, or eco-friendly, methods, this marketing technique has also benefitted NBCU.

"NBC Universal has been able to generate tens of millions of dollars worth of sponsorship revenue during its Green Is Universal Earth Week in the spring and Green Week programming stunts in the fall," wrote Jon Lafayette in, an online insider guide to the television industry.

Sustainability in different fields

While "green" seems to be a vague concept relating to all things environmentally friendly, "sustainable" has a formal definition. The most quoted definition, contained in the United Nations' 1987 Brundtland Report, defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

But sustainability can mean different things in different industries, said Sue Ellen Pegg, recruiting coordinator for the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. In environmental studies, she said sustainability means not depleting natural resources of a given ecosystem.

"Sustainability is looking at a system being able to function at that same level across time," said Pegg, who previously served as the associate director for WasteCap Nebraska, a nonprofit organization that promotes resource conservation to Nebraska businesses.

Sustainability spans many fields, going into areas such as energy.

"Sustainable is generally considered to be an energy source which can't be depleted," wrote Roger Witherspoon, freelance writer and an active member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "Hydro power, thermal power, wind power all fall into that category."

And sustainable design is even important in architecture.

Kuska, who teaches a class on sustainability at UNL, said the concept encompasses more than not depleting resources. A sustainable social profile of a house could involve how the house fits into the existing neighborhood and infrastructure.

A team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln architecture students recently designed and built a house to fit into an established neighborhood with existing infrastructure such as plumbing, power supply and four different bus routes within five blocks of the building. These combined factors make the house more sustainable because the tenants can live comfortably over a long time, Kuska said.

Differentiating "sustainable" and "green"
In a special edition of Scientific American Earth 3.0, Michael D. Lemonick wrote about the untruths linked to both terms. In his article, "Top 10 Myths about Sustainability," Lemonick points out that people often lump sustainability together with green practices when these two terms are not the same.

Since sustainability is based on the drive to keep improving production methods so we preserve scarce resources, Pegg said eco-friendly products aren't necessarily sustainable.

"Just because it says recycled doesn't mean it's good," Pegg said. "Look at the whole life cycle."

For example, she said, disposable paper cups are biodegradable and thus more eco-friendly than styrofoam cups, which take much longer to decompose. However, paper cups are far less sustainable than longer-lasting ceramic mugs.

Kuska said that's why sustainability is an evolving concept.

"There's no one standard for sustainability," Kuska said, "because it's kind of an ideal to strive toward."

But SEJ member Sarah McCammon thinks "sustainability" is more trustworthy than "green."

"'Sustainable' seems a little more precise," responded McCammon, who, at the time, was a reporter and producer for Nebraska's NET radio. "I think it's probably subject to many of the same pitfalls as the term 'green'; however, I hear scientists and urban planners and food-systems experts talk about 'sustainability' a lot more than 'going green.' "

So what kind of pitfalls does "green" face?

Witherspoon, also a critic of the word, said the term has lost its substance because companies pepper advertising with "green" without explaining it.

"Toyota describes its Land Cruiser as a 'green' car," wrote Witherspoon in his e-mail, "I guess because it uses less gas than a similarly huge Cadillac Escalade. GM, on the other hand, describes the new Escalade Hybrid as a Green SUV. Hence, my feeling that it is a journalistically useless term, though one suited for marketing and rather shallow TV reports."

Companies that make misleading environmental claims of their product or company practices engage in a practice called greenwashing.

A 2009 report by TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency, pointed out the seven sins of greenwashing: hidden trade-off, no proof, vagueness, worshipping false labels, irrelevance, lesser of two evils and fibbing.

Of more than 2,000 products claiming to be green in the U.S. and Canada, only 25, or less than 2 percent, of those products were found to be "Sin-free," states TerraChoice on its Web site.

Ruth Brown, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of advertising, said the Federal Trade Commission has regulations on environmental marketing, such as the need to substantiate environmental claims made on any product. But the FTC relies on complaints of products before acting on a case. Brown said insufficient FTC funding and the sheer number of products make enforcement difficult.

"So it boils down to the ethics of advertisers and agencies themselves," she said.

At the very least, Brown said everyone should be armed with a fact-checking mentality when looking at anything labeled as "green" or "sustainable."

"Look for that point of substantiation. Look for where that claim is explained," she said.

As Kermit the Frog would say, "It isn't easy being green."

Sustainable weight
In their defense, not all corporations practice greenwashing. In fact, why shouldn't "green" and "sustainable" carry weight if they are backed up by science?

Vicki Miller, research communications coordinator at UNL's Office of Research and Economic Development, said in more than 20 years of being a reporter and writer, she's used both "green" and "sustainable" but in proper contexts.

For example, "sustainability has long been an issue for agriculture," Miller said. "I think folks sort of forget that ag folks have been concerned with the issue of feeding the world ... long before folks worried about where their food came from."

Paying closer attention
The use of "green" and "sustainable" will continue, but it can bring significant benefit if journalists stop to consider the concepts before using the terms.

On the term "green," Sarah McCammon wrote, "I think it's a positive sign that the word is being used more and that people are at least thinking about these issues."

To Borenstein of the Associated Press, the best way to explain things is to avoid vague terms altogether and cut to the chase.

"My job is to put things in more accessible language," he said. "If something saves electricity or produces less greenhouse gas emissions, why not say it directly? Why not say something is less carbon-polluting?"

Miller, on the other hand, thinks journalists can use the terms, but must define them well.

"Everybody uses them and they mean different things to different people. And they also mean different things in different contexts," she said. "As science writers, we certainly have to be careful and specific about what we're talking about."

Jaclyn Tan graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications in December, 2009. She wrote this story as an assignment in a science-writing class. Tan can be reached at

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue

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