Environmental Protection

Is green consumerism a contradiction in terms?
Answered by Kim Williamson, Diana Bocco and 1 other
  • Kim Williamson

    Kim Williamson

  • Diana Bocco

    Diana Bocco

  • Planet Green

    Planet Green

  1. Critics of green consumerism say it is a contradiction for two reasons -- it encourages us to consume and it puts the responsibility of environmental change on the individual. Green consumerism makes us feel like we're doing something, but it alone will not save the planet.

    Consumption is what drives capitalism, yet consumption is depleting the Earth's resources. Here's an example of what consumption can do to the world: In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, world leaders and economists want Asia -- a huge population and therefore a capitalist's dream -- to buy more, similar to Western consumerism. If it does so, Asian consumption will give a much needed boost to the economy, and at the same time, have a catastrophic effect on the world's resources [source: BusinessWire]. Not a small decision for Asian leaders -- help the world now or save it later. 

    Green consumerism doesn't say to stop buying; it just asks us to buy eco-friendly products. Alex Steffen is the executive editor of Worldchanging.com, a Web site about sustainability. In a New York Times article, Steffen said that most of us think ". . . all that we're going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon is make slightly different shopping decisions" [source: Williams]. But it's not as simple as that.

    Green consumerism also gives the individual -- the consumer -- the responsibility of improving the environment, freeing corporations from any blame. This is a trend established as far back as 1953. In the 50s, instead of worrying about global warming, people worried about pollution. One way to stop pollution was to reduce the manufacture of items that caused it. Instead, glass, steel, aluminum and paper manufacturers commissioned an ad campaign called "Keep America Beautiful." The KAB campaign worked wonderfully, and essentially took responsibility for pollution from the manufacturers of the products to the users [source: Muldoon]. No one worried about manufacturing; we just didn't throw our trash on the ground. Half a century later, green consumerism uses the same technique. From 2008 to 2009, the number of new green products on the market grew 30 percent [source: Makan]. Rather than reduce production to save energy and resources, companies make sure we have a nice selection on the shelves. In 2010, the industry of green products reached $1.04 trillion, world-wide; that's a lot of shopping in the name of environmentalism [source: Makan]. Furthermore, some research indicates that consumers are willing to pay a higher price to purchase green products [source: Manget, Roche and Munnich]. So the corporations improve their green reputation and also their revenues. It's a win-win for everyone, except the environment.

    Green consumerism is not only a contradiction; it allows everyone, the individual and the corporation, to skirt the issue. In an interview with The Washington Post, Paul Hawken, co-founder of Smith and Hawken and well-known environmentalist, said it best: "Everyone is saying 'You don't have to change your lifestyle. ' Well, yes, actually you do" [source: Hesse].

    More answers from Kim Williamson »

  2. The definition of shopping green might seem obvious: Buy an electric car versus one that runs on gas and reuse porcelain plates instead of disposable paper. Lines become blurry once you stray from these more obvious choices. For example, bamboo flooring has long been considered a top green choice because as a grass, the plant regenerates much faster than trees, so choosing it can reduce deforestation. But when you have a 4,000-square foot (372-square meter) home covered by bamboo floors, the argument loses some steam. You might have green floors, but such a large house uses much more energy. That's a classic example of green consumerism: Buy more than you need and negate the environmental benefits of your green choice.   

    Some people also might use the "green excuse" to buy more of a product than they normally would. Green products have less impact on the environment, but buying too much of them still causes problems. For example, consider the impact of shipping and packaging a product like bamboo to your home from abroad, usually from China. Bamboo has to be wrapped and packed properly to prevent it from warping, denting or breaking during transit. This means more packing material wasted, along with gases produced by shipping the bamboo, especially for a massive home.

    The solution might be a minimalist approach. Make things greener, but also make them smaller, or just consume less. More than 35 million Americans regularly buy green products [source: NY Times]. This is great when the products replace others that are less environmentally friendly, but not if they're purchased "just because they're green." Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken sums it up: "Really going green means having less" [source: Common Dreams]. In 2010, author Dave Bruno set up a challenge for himself: Simplify his life until he possessed only 100 items [source: The 100 Things Challenge]. He wanted to avoid consumerism and reduce his impact on the Earth. He also realized that owning less stuff just made more sense. 

    The freegans fight for minimal consumption of resources based on both environmentalist and antiglobalization concerns. Freegans are best known for their practice of dumpster diving, but they also recycle and barter as alternatives to consumerism. They spend as little as possible and reuse items that would otherwise end up in landfills. Foraging is not for everybody, but bartering or recycling can help the Earth without making you feel deprived.

    Recycle Landfill Qa3
    (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

    More answers from Diana Bocco »

  3. Green is "in" these days - it's popular in politics, business and society. People are realizing that the planet Earth is in trouble and that we're all responsible for making choices that minimize the damage done to the ecology of our world. The question is whether changing what we buy will make a difference to the planet or if how much we buy is just as important. Some people feel that buying green is just hiding the real reason that our planet's ecology has suffered.

    More answers from Planet Green »



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