by , 07/29/07

green consumer sustainable lifestyle ny times buying into green eco

Well, it seems everyone is up in arms. We knew it wouldn’t take long before traditional environmentalists would want to rain on the eco-chic consumer’s parade. The recent NY Times article, “Buying Into the Green Movement” begs the question “is eco-minded consumerism the best solution?” and was apparently the most emailed article the day it ran. I myself received it in multiples – specific quotes on the futility of fashion highlighted. Just when you convinced yourself that you were doing your part to save the planet, that nasty image of polar bears without ice resurfaces. It is time to come down from that eco-luxury cloud, my neo-green brethren, there is more that needs to be done. I am just wondering, “what is wrong with wearing organic jeans to the crusade?”

Agree or not, you have to love Paul Hawken‘s statement in the article, “Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence.” On the other hand, for all of its frivolity, fashion certainly does capture attention. And you cannot teach someone something without getting their attention first.

Beyond what its veneer may represent, fashion is an industry and big business. There are 181 billion dollars of retail apparel trade in the US and it’s not all pretty. Cotton uses 25% of the world’s insecticides, which in the US equals 84 million pounds a year, before being tossed into the rubbish bin to join the 11 million tons of textiles that enter the waste system annually. And that does not even consider bad manufacturing processes that utilize toxic dyes and finishers without recycling them or the water and energy necessary to create the latest designer denim.

Hawken additionally comments, “Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase.” It is difficult to argue with that. However, with titles like Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce under his belt, he may have spawned a bit of green consumerism himself.

Eco-friendly lifestyle products, while perhaps not the solution, are certainly better choices. It is likely that every industry can make more ecologically sensitive products, so why would anyone ever discourage it? Isn’t this part of the innovation process? Don’t we need design and art along with science and technology to question where we are, investigate where we are going, and propose, develop, test and incite new ideology? Just because someone’s work may be more based in reducing toxicology than carbon footprints, does that make it any less valuable? I agree that wearing organic cotton may be less pressing than reducing carbon emissions, unless perhaps you are a migrant farm worker or live downstream from the plantation. Furthermore, I don’t think anybody is suggesting it is an either-or situation.

I understood Hawken’s comment as more of a response to the recent media eco-frenzy and the marketing of “green” that often results in confusing green washing and misinformation. It is the same frustration I feel when Hearst believes they have made a huge eco-initiative by printing inside all of their magazines a call to recycle them. Or when 500 people who will likely still use plastic bags stand in line to buy a bag that eschews them.

As an average citizen, there is a limit to what one can do. I do not imagine most of us are busy establishing policy, manufacturing biofuels or inventing new carbon sequestration methods. WorldChanging’s Alex Steffen, in his commentary on the article, agrees that strategic consumption is part of the solution, but feels more important are our public lives, “our roles as citizens, as change agents within our businesses, as advocates in our communities, as investors and philanthropists, as opinion leaders”. To be honest, I feel we are limited even in this capacity. When one’s paycheck is not connected to preaching (most often to the choir), I would surmise the average person is often too occupied to be a change agent. Although it is a nice sentiment.

As a conscious consumer I rationalize that I am doing my part, but am not disillusioned that this is all that is necessary. I agree with the statement Michel Gelobter from Redefining Progress made in the article.

A legitimate beef that people have with green consumerism is, at end of the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and the economy than individual behavior. A lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to do with what you put in your shopping basket. It has to do with mass transit, housing density. It has to do with the war and subsidies for the coal and fossil fuel industry.

So, how do we change that? Only 60% of the population showed up to cast a vote for the president in 2000. With all that occurred in the following four years and what one could argue was at stake, only .7% more people showed up in 2004. I voted. I also switched my light bulbs to CFLS, signed up for green power, live in a small dwelling, take a lot of mass transit, try to unplug my appliances and rarely use the a/c. Frankly, I don’t know what else I can do to prevent Greenland’s glaciers from sliding into the ocean.

So, to paraphrase Jenny Holzer, do we need protection from what we want? Or do we need to redefine what we want? Or both? Who is going to protect us? How do we market a new view on prosperity? What does living the good life mean?

Whatever the message, it is only as effective as the audience it reaches.

What do you think?

+“Buying Into the Green Movement”
+ full article may also be accessed here

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  1. Maira April 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I have to say that being green starts with the government. It is the government who decides our wants and needs by the amount of unnecessary advertising we see everywhere of how our lives should be. This life they advertise is far from being green. Take our people back to our basic needs, food, shelter, & clothing. Get us away from the luxurious lives that have been potrayed for decades because there will not be a life to live without a world to live in.

  2. Refresh Gene Mcdonald October 6, 2007 at 10:16 am

    The green movement is great because it has been so hard to influence the stylish people of our generation into the green movement, showing these awesome and unique design options and influences makes it easier for me to influence Green build into their home or business.

  3. racheblue August 1, 2007 at 1:02 am

    ‘Less materialism and consumerism means less art, music, travel, social interaction’ Matt

    This is a myth we have been fed by greedy corporations and misled governments who benefit from our consumerism. Artists & musicians do not stop creating simply because no-one is buying their work (ask any impoverished or unsold artist or muso! Many artists famous and less so have not sold or only sold a minimal amount of their work. Music existed long before it was sold to the masses as CDs, downloads, even vinyl and tape and art long before galleries and collectors made some work more ‘valuable’ and desirable than others. Creativity is not dependant on consumerism! As for travel & social interaction – we do not need money to do either of these things. Indeed if we spent less time shopping and consuming we would have more money and time to travel and socialize and to be more creative if we felt so inclined.

    I agree with Michael that true eco awareness is combining buying less with buying sustainable products and services when we NEED them. If we all Reduced consumption, Re-used what we already have and Recycled what we no longer need, there would be less waste, less pollution, less poverty and less stress! Perhaps we need to stop watching tv and reading magazines etc that force false advertising on us!

    The idea that we are ‘hardwired genetically to consume’ (Mbrane) is ludicrous! We may be hardwired to survive. Survival – having enough food to eat and adequate shelter – is hardly comparable to the mass consumption of the so called ‘developed’ world. Particularly when so many people go without all the ridiculous things we kid ourselves we need!

    I do agree with Mbrane on the issue of global population however. It may be a sad truth and a bitter pill for many to swallow but having less offspring – particularly in the ‘developed’ world where our individual ecological footprint is far higher than that of those in less ‘developed’ countries – is part of the solution to the mess we have got ourselves into.

  4. moniker August 1, 2007 at 12:02 am

    Far too often, it seems, people seem to let an idealized perfection get in the way of improvement. A step forward, no matter how small, is still a step in the right direction. As well, anyone who has read Cradle to Cradle should realize that human consumption and human nature are only at odds with ecologically regenerative paths when we cause them to be.

  5. MBRANE July 30, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    We must realize that we are hardwired genetically to consume. Hording food and material is a trait that has been selected to help our ancestor to survive on the savanna. Now we almost can’t help but to want the biggest car, the fattiest food, the most noticeable fashion, that we can afford. And if we are rich well then, we get the world that we have. Consuming in a sustainable way has a very small effect in the overall scheme of thing. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We must do it, for we can no longer claim to be ignorant of our affect for not doing it.

    Doesn’t it seem clear that our sheer stupid number is the thing that is most stressing the biosphere? So that it seems to me that the most impact that anyone can make to the current and future world is—-to not reproduce!! Adopt and enlighten kids instead. So that they can do a better job than we and our predecessors did.

  6. Jill Danyelle July 30, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Well, Mr. Spaulding, I will say the same thing I did when you left a similar comment on fiftyRX3.

    Your comment, again, is thinly veiled advertising for Paul Hawken and WiserEarth. However lofty WiserEarth’s goals may be, it is only as effective as the audience it reaches, likely not the same people that are reading Vogue and I.D. But that may be your job, no? By now I assume you are their marketing intern. This is why I advocate integrating green content across mainstream media formats… um, and not just during the month of April.

    Additionally, do we only get one vote – booth or cash register? We can’t be both conscious consumers and voters?

    And, Michael, no we don’t need 14 pairs of jeans, but we may need 4. I don’t care how slim your wardrobe is, it can still be made without pesticides. I don’t see the fact that we should have less pairs of jeans as a strong argument against having better made jeans.

  7. Michael Spalding July 30, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I think anyone that has been concerned with the limits of natural resources for a long time, recognize green consumerism as a false prophet. At best it is a slight improvement on more of the same and at worse it represents a shadow movement that threatens to hijack our language and ideas to insulate itself from criticism.

    One resource citizens can rely on for honest and accurate information about how to lower their footprint is civil society – the millions of organizations that spend day after day working to address environmental degradation and social injustice around the world. Without any direct or tangible benefits to themselves, these groups are discovering solutions and sharing them with the world. As a result of Paul’s research, his staff at NCI created WiserEarth, an online tool to allow more discovery and sharing by anyone concerned with social and environmental justice. If this part of civil society is analogous to the immune system, as Paul suggests, then its success depends on the quality of its connections. WiserEarth is a platform to improve the quality of connections geographically and topically.

    The knowledge contained within the growing community at WiserEarth will set the standard for which future market forces will respond. All citizens need to recognize the role the government has to play: there is no such thing as a “free” market and the massive amount of hidden subsidies in the market today, make it next to impossible for truly sustainable market solutions to emerge. Our role at the voting booth will always be more important than our role at the cash register.

  8. Michael July 30, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    I simply can not believe how naive some of these comments posted by inhabitat viewers are regarding “eco awareness” and “eco friendly” marketing. The honest truth of “eco awareness/friendly” behavior and buying habits is a combination of consuming less and or purchasing sustainable products or services, period. This is not a “hippy”, “elitist”, “class or race” position! Do we really need 14 pairs of jeans? Do we really need that new eco-friendly 46″ HD plasma tv? Probably not, only in America we need more, more and more. Keep drinking your bottled tap water… I mean spring water. This entire country has been brainwashed by advertising and marketing!!!

  9. melissa July 30, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    I believe that while green products in your shopping basket might not be the most significant solution, the whole trend of eco-awareness in the minds of the materialist population can only lead to good things – maybe not the significant impact we need, but it can help. It certainly wouldn’t lead to anything counter-productive. Perhaps when people become aware that they can help the environment (even in the most minimal ways) by buying eco-friendly clothing, they will change their voting habits to be more environmentally friendly. Chances are, the people who read about the eco-friendly clothes and lamps and whatever else are still reading the articles about oil and energy and pollution on a larger scale.

    It’s just virtually impossible in the United States, at least, to live eco-friendly right now. Green building is a very significant step toward that, I believe, but the general population can’t afford a hybrid car and barely any Americans live in a place where mass transit is helpful even in the slightest. Voting CAN help but rarely gets much accomplished; what else can your average citizen do but buy some eco-friendly clothing? Awareness is the first step: remember 4 years ago “eco-friendly” meant hippies. Taking away that reputation is a significant step toward motivating people (and hopefully then governments) to make the sacrifices needed to save the planet.

  10. c! July 30, 2007 at 11:20 am

    > …as we realize low prices are often (not always) red flags for exploitation of people and planet.

    This is what has to change before anything else. There are many “price-conscious” shoppers out there who really do go for the deals, and most of the deals aren’t green. My challenge question is: how can we design product systems where green is the cheapest option?

  11. Sarah July 30, 2007 at 11:01 am

    SPot on and more well written than I could ever hope to attempt. I do all I can do on my limited budget (I’m in grad school and am on a rather small stipend), but I take public transportation, walk more often that I have before, recycle everything (which is hard considering the fact that I dont ‘have curbside pickup like they do back at my dad’s house!). I know, though, that much of it won’t make a difference without a larger effort and more government backing. Much like the industrial agriculture problem that has been coming to light. More HFCS, anyone?

  12. Matt July 30, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I regret this backlash against “green consumerism” for a number of reasons. Sure, this new wave of green fashions and products has resulted in a great deal of greenwashing. And certainly, it’s hard to argue that constantly consuming goods is either healthy or green.

    However, like William McDonough argues, arguing for less and less consumption is not necessarily a good thing. Less and less consumption not only means less materialism and consumerism, it means less art, less music, less travel, less social interaction. Following this line of thinking leads me to think, “wouldn’t I consume less if I was dead?” And the answer is yes.

    I believe the future is in systems that work like nature does. We don’t see a tree as a “consumer” or it’s byproducts as “waste.” The C02 and water trees use and the leaves they drop

  13. Michael July 30, 2007 at 10:03 am

    DO NOT get GREEN WASHED by capitalistic GREED!

    Many of the eco-friendly and eco-chic companies all want us to buy, consume and waist. If you truely want to make a positive impact to the environment and live a healthy sustainable life-style than stop consuming so much junk whether it is an eco-friendly product from Barney’s or a cheap piece of furniture bought from Walmart or made in China!

  14. J July 30, 2007 at 9:15 am

    eloquently put Jill – I agree with you 100%

  15. Andy Polaine July 30, 2007 at 5:28 am

    I think it is, as ever, a case of small increments on many fronts adding up to a bigger difference. I don’t think that green consumerism necessarily has to be an oxymoron – that’s what Cradle to Cradle was all about. Imagine I could buy a car whose emissions cleaned the air and whose disposal composted my garden and created an energy source. Idealistic as that may be, it’s the lofty goal we need to aim for.

    Those goals and approaches aren’t going to happen in one leap and all in one goal. Buying eco/green products might end there, which is better than nothing. But it might then lead to washing your eco jeans in non-toxic washing liquids, making your children pester you about your own energy consumption, etc., etc. All of these lead to a critical mass and some of that will filter upwards.

    Being green might be a bandwagon and fashionable – and greenwashing is a problem – but it’s not a bad bandwagon for people to be on.

  16. Sean July 30, 2007 at 3:10 am

    I must agree that as individuals, there is literally only so much that can be done. But there is an important point in that statement. It is the word “individuals”. On our own, we can only do so much, but if we were to inspire others, it would soon become a relentless tide of positive change. The question is, to be frank, how the hell is that going to happen?

    In my opinion, not only do we need to change what we consume, but our whole society. The society I speak of is the one built on cars, sprawl, and freeways. It completely defies the nice little notion of “access by proximity”, that wonderful thing that doesn’t burn fossil fuels, or inefficiently consume energy. It’s time to reinvent how we live, since as we’re doing it now, with our large, sprawling 2-d cities, we’re going the way of the dinosaurs, except our fate is engineered.

  17. thomas July 30, 2007 at 2:43 am

    As long as it are the marketing managers who are the ones that decide wich products get the label “eco” or “green”, consumers are never shure they are doing something for the benefit of our world or just for the beenfit of some people’s bank accounts. We need some kind of standard or institute to adress the label “green”.

    for example: the car industry. there is a hughe intrest in replacing glass fiber by natural fiber in composites. and a car that has 1 panel of natural fibre composite is celebrated as a green car. but at the end of its lifecycle this panel has to be treated in the same way as glass fibre composite, in casu, burned or dumped in a landfill. it can not be recycled, fibers and resin can not be separated. IMO, the only benefit in using natural fibre, is that it consumes less energy to produce than glass fibre does.

  18. c! July 29, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    I do also see “green consumerism” as an important step in getting onto that road called sustainability. The question, “What does living the good life mean?” is a critically important one… not in spite of the fact that everyone will answer it differently, but because of it. Just as the future of energy will composed of a diversity of power sources from wind to biomass to direct sunlight, the future of living sustainably will most likely be composed of a variety of lifestyles. Any sustainable solution must have the majority of the public not just in support, but in actual participation… that just seems to be a matter of definition to me. I think that it’s fair to say only a small portion of the developed world will give up their cars, go vegetarian, go to smaller houses, etc. specifically to “save the planet.”

    What’s needed is a vision of sustainability that expresses an improvement, not a reduction in quality of life… real -or- perceived. Green consumption is a part of that… it’s not the only part, of course, but it’s a key part. After all, we all consume, so how can we consume differently? And also, to echo Michel Gelobter, green consumption along with basic energy/water/waste reduction techniques is probably the only thing that non-architects/politicians/engineers/designers can easily do. I agree that to truly get to that sustainable road, we have to design sustainable systems at all scales, and it’s a challenge for me to figure out how most of the public could participate in this.

  19. Harmony July 29, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    I personally believe that we are at the brink of waking up from our “better living through more things” stupor that we have easily been lulled into. Our closets are full and our lives aren’t better…. maybe even more burdened. I foresee the shift coming in the form of fewer more thoughtful (and yes expensive) products being purchased as the “true” cost (environmental, social, etc) are no longer insulated from our awareness.

    In the short term it may appear as simply replacing one form of consumerism with another but I believe that the shift away from the constant need for more and more stuff is arriving. It starts with education and awareness which “green fashion” (as well as green building, energy, etc) is bringing. Eventually bragging about the “deal” you got will be as old school as throwing out an aluminum can…as we realize low prices are often (not always) red flags for exploitation of people and planet.

  20. Jo July 29, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Any step towards a greener society is a good one, we cannot expect society to go cold turkey on consumerism. That will never happen, if you try and force it, people will rebel. ‘Green’ fashion is at least educating society that being green doesnt necessarily mean going without luxuries… and thats a step towards the positive, certainly not the negative.

    I dont understand how he can see it as a bad thing.

  21. Mark July 29, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    I think your point is dead-on. We’ve all got to be employed to keep up with our roles as consumers (whether consuming SUVs or Prii and organic cotton), and have limited personal resources to spend (time, money, energy) on making an impact.

    Reality constantly makes it difficult to be an agent of change. I believe in sustainable communities and choices. I believe in the power of urban settings and smart choices to produce efficiencies in consumption. I wrote recently about my choices, and the odds I face:

    I said to a friend recently, “I see two ways to live sustainably: Share resources in an urban setting, walk, use mass transit. Or live rural and get off the grid.” My wife and are constantly pushed from the former to the latter. Valuing our space and comfort at home, we’ll eventually find ourselves making choices to buy smart, sustainable solutions in a new home in a quiet setting rather than make smart use of what already exists.

    Guess what? Until it becomes chic to be green, you’re not going to achieve critical mass in creating green communities where they didn’t exist. They need to exist everywhere. Until critical mass is achieved, and while many of have to face reality and earn a paycheck every day, agents of change are going to tire of swimming upstream.

    Gradual greening of society through fashionable consumption is necessary to turn the tide and make sustainability the norm. There’s got to be a way to make SUVs and NASCAR uncool.

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