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.com’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