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By Noushi Rahman

How do companies such as American Apparel, Apple, Starbucks, Timberland, Tom’s of Maine, and Trader Joe’s acquire such a pro-sustainability image? I had an unarticulated notion in my head that many of these so-called ethical companies were not as ethical as they seemed, that some were simply far more brilliant than others in marketing their “ethical” activities and smudging their “unethical” behaviors. Then National Public Radio introduced me to Fran Hawthorne’s book Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love.

Hawthorne articulated and elaborated on this idea. Her research makes a convincing argument that these companies are really nowhere near as environmentally friendly as their reputations tout. For those who want to get an initial taste of what the book covers, there is this broadcast interview as well as reviews available online. I like the review by McKenzie Mount. I don’t want to paraphrase it here; rather, I want to add one viewpoint that this wonderful review did not capture.

Consumers themselves can unwittingly project a pro-environment or pro-sustainability image on firms that are “environment-harming.” For example, when an advocate of sustainability chooses to use an Apple product, or wear Timberland shoes, or shop at Trader Joe’s, that person ostensibly projects her/his pro-environment image on the product that s/he is using the Apple iPhone, the Timberland boots, the Trader Joe’s grocery bag.  This is then coupled with savvy marketing.

For instance, an email from our pro-environment advocate friend has a default automated signature that indicates the device from which it was sent, for example, “Sent from my iPhone.” This, in turn, sends signals of association between Apple and its users. We know our pro-environment advocate friend a lot more closely than we know the inner-workings of a large corporation, so, we do what is normal – we tie Apple’s products to pro-environment qualities, based on the image of its user.

Thus, by pro-actively selecting buyers of a certain class, a company can indeed build a resource that continuously brandishes its environmental reputation.  This process happens millions of times every day, albeit at a subconscious level.  This is one of the ways that environment-harming companies acquire a pro-sustainability image.

Of course, the impacts of your activities as a consumer are not beyond your control. For example, the default signature that accompanies emails sent from your smartphone (and advertises to your recipients what product you use) can be customized, even on an iPhone. It is not my place to tell you whether to change it, but it is your advertising space to do with as you please.