What does 'green' mean?

April 4, 2018

While observing a large truck empty a portable toilet with a "Green Toilet" sticker slapped on the door, the subject of this mini blog series became crystal clear to me. Often it feels like we have been seeing the word 'green' a lot. An increase in usage has been accompanied by usage in places where traditionally the words haven't been used. Oil companies, for example, are claiming to be 'green' energy companies, and US Presidential Candidates are running on green tickets (See Jill Stein's 2016 bid). We also hear a lot about 'green technology' which is supposed to mitigate the effects of climate change that humans are most definitely causing.*​


So when we hear the word 'green', what are we supposed to think about exactly? Why are we so easily consumed by marketing ploys like 'greenwashing' which seem to convince us that certain products are 'better for the environment'?


To understand where the idea of 'green' comes from we first have to understand the history of the word. When we imagine green, we probably imagine the startlingly abstract color that exists between yellow and blue. Green may also conjure images of rolling hills of grass or luscious nature. ​​ 



From a few abstract notions of the color in mind, the reality of green is somewhat more complicated. Psychologist Francis Adams tested the affective meanings of colors across cultures and generally found that the color green indicated positive affective states. 


Green represents many different things to many different people. In the west, we know a green traffic light means 'go'. For people around the world, green symbolizes springtime and rejuvenation.   


The term "green" in the 20th century rose to the common vernacular in the 1960s in reference to the "Green Revolution". Referring to the rise of genetically modified crops and improved farming techniques, the revolution more so refers to the ability to develop countries to feed their growing populations.


In Europe in the 1980s, Green Parties began to take center stage politically. In Germany, the Green Party began to centralize broadly around environmentalist ideologies but also included social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence in their four pillars system



Similarly, Green Parties began to pop over the western political world. In the United States, for example, the Green Party ran Ralph Nader in the 2000 election (many argue that Nader's success as a green candidate cost then-Vice President Al Gore the election) which brought major media attention to the issue of environmentalism and the larger green movement. 


Al Gore later went on to rally in the name of environmentalism in his documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, which made sense of all the data collected by scientists. 



For much of the early 2000s, the movement was centered around the energy and technology sectors. By addressing the industries who en mass contribute large portions to greenhouse gas emissions, pollute local environments, and commit gross human rights injustices in the name of capitalism, the green movement has become entrenched in the​ modern consumer's psyche.


As a response, energy corporations, oil giants, and tech firms have begun to address the problem of sustainability and the issue of climate change in a move towards Corporate Social Responsibility schemes.  ((see Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2004). Corporate social responsibility). Challenged with both maintaining profit margins and responding to consumer demands for environmentally friendly services, companies are sometimes hard pressed for solutions to systemic problems (think about a large oil company who must respond to allegations of large-scale greenhouse gas emissions). In turn, we see large corporations running media campaigns which utilize the term 'green' in a process called "Greenwashing" Here are some examples: 


Plant Bottle : Coca Cola



Ford: 'Green' gas fueled cars



So what or who determins what 'green' means?


Some institutionalized response has come from The International Standards Organization (ISO) who released a guide  to what it means to have an eco-friendly label which explains that brands can attach the term "green" to products which have less impact on the environment. 


For the most part, the conversation now rests in the hands of young people and students. We have to remain cautious when presented with marketing ploys utilizing the word green, and above all, we must continue the quest to determine what it means to be "green" in the 21st century and beyond. 


At The UvA Green Office, we have put lots of thought into what exactly it means to have the word green in our name. As the communications portfolio holder, I find 'green' to be the central ethos by which we operate. 'Green' in reference to the UvA Green office, equates in the plainest terms to sustainability. Whether that means sustainability in terms of waste separation and reduction in social and energy sustainability, the green office is dedicated to making it happen. 


Over the course of the next three blog series, we will explore three projects currently underway at the green office. 


Stay tuned! 




(If you still need some help understanding/require some further established evidence this please visit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report )






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