Greenwash or No? How Asking the Hard Questions Honed My Niche

Can you recognize greenwash in the making…and when you do, what do you do about it? If you’re a freelance marketing green businesses to well-meaning consumers who are vulnerable to misleading green claims, these are questions that can reshape a niche.

For me, the shift started with an inquiry call from a prospective client. The caller said he represented a green start-up company seeking a copywriter with experience in gardening to promote a new compost product. Intrigued, I quickly called back to learn more, and found that the start-up was actually a new offshoot of an established waste management firm. They planned to collect and compost yard waste; the state environmental agency had already granted its blessing. When could I meet with them to discuss marketing copy?

That was when the alarm bells started ringing. As a streamwatcher, permaculture student, permaculture copywriter and organic gardener-wannabe (with an adjoining neighbor whose yard is regularly sprayed against weeds and bugs), I’ve done some research on the impact of systemic pesticides and herbicides  on pollinators and water and soil ecosystems. Considering the wind-drift of my neighbor’s treatments, I’m personally wary about putting even my own untreated yard trimmings on my gardens!

How careful was this company planning to be? I wondered. Were they aware of the potential impact of persistent herbicides and pesticides – products that were available in every big-box home and garden store and used on a vast majority of residential lawns – on the product they were planning to sell? If they were aware, did they care?

So I started asking questions of my prospective client. Awkward questions, to be sure. My work as a writer for green and sustainable businesses arises from a passionate commitment to healthy ecosystems and social systems, I told him; I don’t market any product or service that I wouldn’t personally use and recommend with confidence. Are you planning simply to pick up all yard waste, or will you be contracting to pick up only the trimmings of organic gardeners who have not chemically treated their yards?

“Oh, we’ll be doing streetside pickup from everyone in the county. Why? Oh – excuse me, I have to take this call. Could I call you back?” – “Oh, sure.” – Click.

Oh dear. Either they were blissfully ignorant or they indeed did not care.

So I started looking at other, similar businesses and the state guidelines that regulated them. My prospective client was right: our state did not appear to require separation between organic and treated yard waste in commercially-produced compost. So I called experts from the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute and Rodale Institute and asked – have you seen operations like this before? Do you have any data regarding their long-range environmental impact?

Jerome Osentowski of CRMPI indeed had encountered similar businesses. He told me of a start-up company in his Colorado town which had also practiced indiscriminate composting of undifferentiated yard waste. Their customers’ gardens were severely affected by persistent herbicides as a result, with contamination of the compost as high as 8ppm (3ppm being enough to damage a garden). There is no way to control the level of persistent toxins in such compost, and there is no way to remediate the product or the contaminated land, Jerome told me; the toxins resist metabolic decomposition and can last anywhere from two to more than twenty years in the soil, accumulating with repeated applications of tainted compost.

The repercussions for the start-up were disastrous.

I started checking out the issue of compost contaminated with persistent herbicides and pesticides nationwide and found plenty of corroboration. The topic has been in the news since 2002, and has sparked at least one lawsuit.

My caution had been well-founded. There was no way I could promote such a product in anything resembling good conscience.

When my prospective client called back, I shared my findings with him, and my decision to decline his inquiry. “But – but – the state approved our plan!” he stammered. “I’m sorry – I don’t use the state’s standards,” I told him, describing the long-term impact of compost contaminated by persistent herbicides.

“But we’re taking yard waste out of the waste stream,” he countered. “I’m sorry – I’m not willing to market a product that could damage the gardens of innocent buyers for decades to come,” I said. As we ended the call, I could hear that he was still bewildered by my refusal.

As I reflected on the conversation after hanging up, I saw it was a clash of conflicting values and conflicting priorities: he was looking to add another income stream that superficially met official green criteria, but he had no driving interest in his product’s long-term environmental impact. For my part, I was looking to invest my skills in projects that would authentically benefit the planet and the people, while yielding a profit; collateral damage was not acceptable.

That was when Your Words’ Worth shifted from promoting green businesses to promoting restorative entities – businesses, nonprofits, and individuals that actively work to heal the planet and people. For a writer who had just completed her M.A. in Applied Healing Arts at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, with a focus on narrating and facilitating conscious personal connection with a resacralized natural world, this was an epiphany.

Some would call it fiscally insane – doubling down from an already-small niche to an even smaller, passionately committed niche. But as I look at the businesses I serve and seek to serve, and the work they are doing in the world – at a time when no work is more important – I feel the yes solid as earth under my feet: risky or no, for me, this is right livelihood.



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