Green Consumerism Essay

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There is something that all of the following have in common: driving a hybrid car; eating organic and/or local food; building with certified “sustainably produced” wood; joining the “back to the land” movement; boycotting Shell Oil, Esso, and Nestle; using nonchemical housecleaning products; investing in “ethical” stock portfolios; recycling aluminum cans and glass bottles; sourcing electricity from wind or solar energy; purchasing energy-efficient washing machines, refrigerators, and lightbulbs; and swaddling a child in cloth reuseable diapers.

While disparate activities, at a general level, these are different forms and means of green consumerism. Green consumerism works from the recognition that the Earth’s resources are limited, environmental damage is directly and indirectly related to the exploitation of these resources, and consumer power and choice can be utilized to produce positive environmental change. It is argued that the market signals of green consumer demand encourage the sustainable production of goods and services by businesses and governments. This is characterized as (mostly well-off) consumers “voting” for environmental responsibility with their money. Green consumption has become an increasingly powerful but loosely organized movement in the last decade; to paraphrase Julie Guthman, a researcher on California organic food, the production and consumption of organic salad mix has done more to reduce pesticide use than all the organizing around pesticide reform.

Green consumerism is a broad and bewildering term given the vast nature of its forms, means, and meanings. It is closely allied with the concepts of sustainable consumption and, these days, the growing movement for ethical consumption. These are both subsets of green consumption: sustainable consumption includes a concern for social justice, and ethical consumption incorporates moral responsibility and care. All three are often used interchangeably, leading to potential confusion in policy and popular discussions. Clearly, however, green consumerism has shifted academic and popular debates around the even broader concept of sustainable development; how to make consumption greener, more sustainable, and more ethical has moved to the forefront of the problems and policies for sustainable development.

Coming out of the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s and gaining serious traction in the 1990s, the demand for and production of green commodities has expanded rapidly. One of the earliest statements was the publication of the wildly popular 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth (1989) in the United States. Published simultaneously in the United Kingdom (UK) was The Green Consumer Guide: From Shampoo to Champagne-High-Street Shopping for a Better Environment, which begins, “Every day, whether we are shopping for simple necessities or for luxury items, for fish fingers or fur coats, we are making choices that affect the environmental quality of the world we live in.” Newer writings include The Newman’s Own Guide to the Good Life: Simple Measures that Benefit You and the Place You Live (United States) and The Good Shopping Guide (UK), with the publishing trend spreading to The Ethical Consumer magazine (UK) and to the Internet. In addition, almost all of the major environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, Conservation International, and Friends of the Earth now urge their members to shop more responsibly.

There are different philosophical underpinnings that inform the diversity of green consumerism. Essentially, it lies along a continuum of philosophical positions and associated activities, from the most eco-centric to the most technocentric. Eco-centric green consumers advocate more radical lifestyle changes and economic relationships; some might even go “back to the land” to live “off the grid,” producing their own energy and food. More technocentric green consumers, those with greater faith in green technologies, might advocate moderate shopping-style changes, perhaps purchasing a hybrid car and shopping for organic food. Most green consumers are between these extremes, for example, growing food in their backyard, or – while owning a car – riding a bike when feasible.

Impact on Business and Consumers

This mainstreaming of green consumption has greatly influenced business. Companies now talk about measuring success through the triple bottom line-economic viability, environmental soundness, and social responsibility-which is more formally understood as the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The ethos of CSR, while at one level led by consumers’ concern for companies to “do well by doing good,” has also been led by companies working to increase efficiency and boost revenues.

Below the surface, how does green consumption work? The dissemination of information is fundamental to the processes of green consumerism. This involves providing consumers with knowledge about various commodities and companies to assess their claims of environmental sustainability and give “greener” choices. Additionally, activists and journalists provide “muckraking” exposes of the environmental and human exploitation by corporations and commodities. This provides consumers with a sense of what to avoid, but also puts pressure on companies to change their products or supply chains. Examples of food-based “muckraking” include Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me. Exposing Nike’s labor abuses in footwear manufacturing is one of the most famous activist-led exposes.

Information is also provided to consumers on market shelves. This is a process known as eco-labeling: A product, through the use of logos, images, and descriptive language, decries to consumers its environmental-friendliness and/or its ethical properties by giving information about its sustainability. Eco-labeling allows companies to differentiate themselves and draw in new green consumers. Further, eco-labeling often utilizes an audit-type regulatory systems. For example, all U.S. foods labeled as “organic” must be produced to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-regulated set of standards and certified by a USDA-approved certification agency. The Forest Stewardship Council has created a certification system for sustainably sourced wood. Standards and logos make production processes transparent to foster a verifiable trust between the green product, company, and consumer.

“Doing” green consumption involves two main activities: the boycott and the buycott. Boycotting is the active avoidance of particular products or a particular company to protest their actions or environmental record. The latest incarnation of the boycott, which targets consumerism as a whole, is known as the international “Buy Nothing Day.” The buycott involves purchasing from a particular company or a particular commodity to “vote” with one’s dollar for that company or product. For example, Seafood Watch (www.seafoodwatch.org), in suggesting “choices for healthy oceans,” unequivocally states that, “You have the power…your consumer choices make a difference.” The group supplies a list of seafood to buy “to support those fisheries and fish farms that are healthier for ocean wildlife and the environment.” Green consumption can involve both the buycott and boycott. Seafood Watch lists which seafoods to avoid-an explicit boycott-while eating organic foods involves a buycott but also the implicit boycott of industrially farmed foods.

Recycling, while strictly different from green consumption in that nothing is “consumed” per se (except in the case of buying recycled products), is one of the most accessible forms of green consumerism. At the consumer level it is quickly expanding beyond bottles and cans to include plastics, green and food wastes, and clothes and appliances.

Problems and Critiques

There are many trenchant critiques of green consumerism that legitimately call it into question. The most obvious criticism leveled against green consumerism is that it individualizes the problem and solution of environmental conservation and makes it a function solely of consumer choice. Thus, in dealing with environmental problems, many of which are caused by corporations and governments in the first instance, these are lain at the feet (and wallets and hearts) of conscious middle-class consumers rather than at those that should be held accountable.

Individualization and the intensive marketization of conservation and social justice through green consumerism can be further questioned in these ways: (1) green consumerism cannot explain to consumers the complexities of environmental problems such as global climate change or confront such a multi-causal phenomenon though a change in shopping behavior; (2) green products are often more expensive and less accessible for lower-income consumers instituting a class bias into these markets; (3) in a lost irony, more consumption (of the “right” products!) is posed as the solution to what is clearly a function of overconsumption; (4) many purchases are narrowly based on personal risk, such as avoiding pesticides by eating organic, rather than a wider environmental and social ethic; (5) green consumerism further adds to the aestheticizing of society, trivializing the seriousness and severity of ecological problems; (6) there is a fashionability to green consumption (i.e., saving the whales one day, saving the rain forest the next) that targets “hot” environmental problems and specific species, but ignores more mundane and important parts of the environment; (7) many suggest that shopping for the latest eco-product has become a substitute for more “real” forms of political opposition and social change for greater environmental sustainability; (8) others argue that green consumerism and production merely treat the symptoms of environmental and social exploitation and do not address the root systemic causes of exploitation in capitalism’s relentless drive for economic growth and profit; (9) and finally, one of the most well-known critiques of green consumerism is that of greenwashing, where large companies hide behind the marketing of one or two eco-friendly products or services, while causing environmental harm in other ways and in other locations.

In these ways, green consumerism might actually prevent the accountability of those truly responsible for environmental destruction and distract from more committed and deeper socioeconomic progress in the production of goods, how we relate to ecologies, and how we relate to each other across social, economic, and geographical divides. And, while the controversy over the effectiveness and authenticity of green consumerism will continue, there is little doubt that, while a beginning of some sort, there is a long and winding way for green consumerism to go for it to put us on the path to environmental sustainability and social justice.

Bibliography:

  1. Maurie Cohen and Joseph Murphy, Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (Elsevier Science, 2001);
  2. Julie Guthman, “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow’,” Social and Cultural Geography (v.4, 2003);
  3. Naomi Klein, No Logo (Picador, 2000);
  4. Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, Confronting Consumption (MIT Press, 2002);
  5. Redclift, Wasted: Counting the Costs of Global Consumption (Earthscan, 1997);
  6. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995).

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