Trying to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, Home Depot has begun to classify some of the products it sells as greener than others. But as the chain discovered when it invited suppliers to suggest candidates for the new product category, greenness is in the eye of the beholder:
More than 60,000 products—far more than obvious candidates like organic gardening products and high-efficiency lightbulbs—suddenly developed environmental star power.
Plastic-handled paint brushes were touted as nature-friendly because they were not made of wood. Wood-handled paint brushes were promoted as better for the planet because they were not made of plastic.
An electric chainsaw? Green, because it was not gas-powered. A bug zapper? Ditto, because it was not a poisonous spray. Manufacturers of paint thinners, electrical screwdrivers and interior overhead lights claimed similar bragging rights simply because their plastic or cardboard packaging was recyclable.
Home Depot is in the process of vetting such claims, deciding which features should count when it comes to getting along better with Mother Nature. As The New York Times notes, this is no simple matter. A refrigerator, for example, might be considered environmentally superior because of its energy efficiency. But what about the energy and other resources used to make the refrigerator, the pollution generated by its production and transportation, or the waste generated by the packaging and the refrigerator itself when it's thrown out? Should a green stamp of approval be based on a product's entire life cycle, or just one or two easily measured features? Similar issues came up in the debates over paper vs. plastic bags and cloth vs. disposable diapers.