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Green consumerism: friend or foe?


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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