Green consumerism: friend or foe?

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The New York Times takes a look at green consumerism, the possibly paradoxical notion that we can shop our way to a more sustainable future. This sort of examination is pretty long overdue, and the Times does a decent job at digging into some of the more complex issues surrounding the recent fashion for green — or “green” — products. Watching marketers wrap themselves in a green mantle is at times an embarrassing spectacle. It is also, on balance, a good thing.

The incongruities of green consumerism aren’t restricted to environmental products. To a large degree, shopping is what Americans do. People define and express themselves through consumption, and they can remain surprisingly oblivious to even the most glaring contradictions. The Times draws an apt analogy with the spread of fat-free junk food, which Americans consume in increasing quantities as obesity rates continue to rise. Here’s an idea: eat less junk food. Use less gas. Forgo the plasma TV.

Many environmentalists are ambivalent about America’s newfound infatuation with eco-shopping. On the one hand, infatuation seems like a distinct step up from indifference. One the other, it’s hard to watch ideals that you believe in get watered down or, worse, co-opted in a way that might be antithetical to their true intent.

Ultimately, though, the spreading interest in all things green is a positive development. As the article also notes, many of the really big environmental problems are far out of the scope of individual purchase decisions. They require governmental action, structural change, and long-term thinking.

They require, in short, political solutions. But with rare exception, politicians don’t lead their constituents. Political will exists in direct proportion to voter concern. And as long as we’re passing on political clichés, here’s another one: people tend to vote — as well as shop — their values. As often as environmental issues are framed in terms of economics, they are equally if not more so a question of values.

Unsurprisingly, marketers are in tune with this shift in mores, and unsurprisingly, this sometimes leads to wincingly silly products, such as the 19-inch widescreen L.C.D. in a “sustainable bamboo” case. It was a sure bet that the mainstreaming of green values would entail some such watering down and some such silliness.

The good news is that as the political and cultural center takes on shades of “light green,” the policy wonks, issue activists, and green-minded lawmakers will suddenly discover they have a lot more room in which to maneuver.

Update: A reader points to this post by WorldChanging’s Alex Steffen, who was quoted in the Times article. Alex’s take is in line with mine, but he takes his thoughts a lot further. Worth reading.

Illustration credit: New York Times

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  1. Rich - July 4, 2007

    I hear a lot of my friends say things that add up to, “I do not need to give up my indulgence because I am doing this other good green shopping.” There is a feeling that these small changes will be enough.

  2. Bob - July 5, 2007

    It’s a reminder of the saying from the early days of the eco movement: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.” Green consumerism may be a good step in this direction. But if it becomes the “end,” we’re all lost.

  3. Sorina - July 5, 2007

    Adam has a very good point: solving the environmental issues requires political action. Political action is driven by voters’ choices and implication in the political process.

    Perhaps th green consumerism can turn into green activism; imagine writing a letter to your representative asking for “green” policies and their implementation ever time you have the urge to buy some luxury item (green or not). Right now it is fashionable to shop “green”; I’d like to see “green” activism become fashionable. Every one of us has the power to change the status quo.

  4. Kari - July 5, 2007

    When it comes to green shopping, so many people win if everyone switches to fair trade and organic products, and everyone but California farmers win when people eat locally and support their own farmers. I used to care if people went green because it was the trendy thing to do, but I figure that as long as they are doing the right thing I can’t be questioning their motives.

    We all started on the road to living more sustainably somewhere, and I’m willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt. Why turn them off the cause when they’ve just started to care? As long as what is being bought and sold truly is ‘green’ I’m all for it.

  5. Patrick - July 5, 2007

    Alex Steffen at Worldchanging was quoted (somewhat out of context) in the story. His clarification and rebuttal can be found here:
    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/006975.html

  6. Anonymous - July 5, 2007

    If you are interested, you might like to check out
    http://www.betterworldshopper.com/
    This guy did a LOT of work researching companies using many different sources. The book grades almsot every company, every product you can buy, on an A, B, C, D, F scale based on the company’s environmental and social records. Factors considered include pollution, use of child-labor, racial discrimination, animal testing, lawsuit involvement, etc. Some of the grades are obvious (Oh, Whole Foods scores better than Shop-N-Save? Who knew??) but others you might not guess, like American Airlines scores a B+, while United scores a D. Amoco scores an A-, but Exxon-Mobil a huge red F.
    I so appreciate all the research that went into this book, because I would NOT have the time.

  7. Prius101 - July 5, 2007

    I say its the newfounded green consumerism is a good thing. Yes, there will always be “chaf with the wheat.” But, we face a critical juncture in history and we are finally seeing a more sustained debate on how society needs to evolve from industrial products and ways to more truly sustainable ways – or else face severe consequences. So, if we can all tolerate the junk, we can continue to build the awareness and better choices for people to vote with their purchases and do what they can. Its a start…

  8. grngrngrn - July 7, 2007

    -“Green Consumerism,” like Middle-East peace or rap music, is an oxymoron. It seems the product of the advertising industry, to have us think we can be ecological without any sacrifice, and continue to overconsume as long as someone labels it “green.” I’m dubious.

  9. Paul - July 15, 2007

    I think that green consumerism has its place, if it\’s used to reduce consumption or to provide better alternatives. Here\’s a few examples:

    I bought the Kill-a-Watt gadget to measure the electric of appliances in my house. I was surprised to discover that my DVD player used a continuous 7 watts while off. So if I use my DVD player 4 times a week, about 85% of the electricity used will be when it is off! However, it does have a clock that I used. So I bought a battery powered clock instead, and unplugged my DVD player when not in use. If I only need to recharge the batteries for the clock every 4 months, this will have reduced my “clock electric” by 99.98%. Buying the Kill-a-Watt gadget, clock, and rechargable batteries has reduced my electricity consumption.

    I\’m not ready to give up my car. Since I have to use gas, I buy from BP. BP invests a lot into R&D of alternative energy, so I feel that I\’m helping to support that effort. (However, note that the book mentioned above states that Sunoco is slightly better than BP). I don\’t use this as an excuse to use more gas. I try to drive slower and consolidate my trips as well.

    I buy Silk Soy Milk as an alternative to milk. This is made from organically grown soy beans, and uses 100% wind energy in its production. And due to the fact that cows produce a lot of methane, I feel that reducing demand on dairy with this non-dairy product helps in reducing this greenhouse gas (I heard that cows of the world do more harm to global warming than all of the cars in the world, due to the methane that they produce).

    By the way, Silk has a contest now where you can offset electric use with wind energy while having a chance to win energy efficient appliances:

    http://www.silksoymilk.com/GreenCap/