The Big Task Of Living Up To Our Environmental Ideals


Environmentalism is fraught with contradictions. People genuinely want to help the environment but don’t want to give up their personal comforts. The contradictions that we live with are everywhere in our daily lives, and they are everywhere in our institutions. 

Greenwashing describes the practice of misleading consumers about environmental practices in order to make the company or institution appear more environmentally friendly than it is.

Greenwashing is such a charged term that I hesitate to use it to describe institutions like Bon Appétit, but I think we need to apply a critical eye to its practices. For instance, Bon Appétit recently jumped on the no-more-straws bandwagon — a move that could be considered greenwashing. Yes, not using straws is a small step in the right direction, but the danger is in creating a feel-good sense of environmentalism while sacrificing the bigger picture. The instant gratification of not using a straw doesn’t relieve us of our broader environmental responsibility.

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

This feel-good environmentalism can be seen in the way we compost as well. All the bioplastics, like the green label cups and utensils, cannot be composted — our industrial compost facility doesn’t reach a high enough temperature, to decompose them, so they just get sorted out down the line. Yet they are still listed as compostable on all the bins.  

Why are we still tolerating this, both individually and as an institution? All this supposed “composting” does is create a false sense of activism. We feel rewarded, but the reality is that we ought to be using our own reusable cups if we actually are concerned about our waste.

Dr. Tyler Cornelius, professor in Colorado College’s Environmental Program, also sees greenwashing as a problem at CC: “There’s plenty of greenwashing,” said Cornelius.       “It’s all over and you can find it. CC is caught in the trap. You’re advertising this idea, but the practical reality is always compromised.” 

These issues arise because we feel we need to label ourselves concisely so that we can market ourselves as a green institution. But the language we apply fails to capture the scope and complexity of what “going green” actually means. 

Nevertheless, compared to many other institutions, CC does a good job of enacting legitimate change. Director of sustainability at CC, Ian Johnson commented, “The term greenwashing — we are really trying to stay away from that. We are trying to make sure that these things are real.”

It is essential that we keep asking ourselves if the changes that we make to our lives and institutions in order to be green are real. That we want a “grab and go ethic” for environmental issues is a deadly flaw in a quest towards sustainability. It creates a mindset that makes us think that because we are eating something that is certified organic, it’s the best option. It makes us complacent because we believe that by using environmentally friendly consumables, it’s okay to further perpetuate the epidemic that is our consumer culture. 

We need to do a better job of addressing the contradictions we all live with, not because we aren’t already doing a good job, but because the scope and scale of the issues we are facing mean that we can’t allow for complacency. We can’t fall into a trap where we say, “we’ve done enough because we didn’t use a straw,” because the stakes are too high. 

Practically, this looks like asking why we haven’t addressed the issues with our compost yet. It means asking institutions like Bon Appétit to be more transparent about food sourcing so we can know exactly how much of our food is actually being sourced sustainably. It also means that we need to encourage a legitimate, transparent, and honest conversation with our administration about issues like divestment from fossil fuels, in order to open the dialogue for change. 

I’m not saying that there is greenwashing on our campus, or that we absolutely should divest from fossil fuels, or that Bon Appetit cares more about their bottom line than environmentalism. I am saying that these issues are incredibly complex and that oversimplified language and speaking in absolutes fails us if we truly want to avoid contradictions. The issue isn’t that CC doesn’t care or isn’t doing enough,  it’s that it’s working within a flawed framework. 

“CC’s not what it seems, of course that’s true, but the world’s not what it seems,” Cornelius said. “Let’s see how we can learn from it. Transparency has got to be the name of the game. That at least allows us to have a debate.”

To be clear, I think that there are many amazing things happening on campus, and I think that groups like the Office of Sustainability are doing great things for environmentalism on campus. But we can always strive to be better.

“There’s no silver bullet,” said Johnson. “There’s no perfect answer. All of us can do more to live up to the ideals that we claim.”

If we really care — if we really want change — we need to take on the wicked problems that face our quest towards sustainability. The complexity of doing this is staggering because it means we must break our neat little conceptual boxes. But the existing framework is flawed, and it’s only by breaking it that we can start to build something better. 

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