The paradox of environmental consumerism
By Julia Pergolini
I recently saw an article on Baristanet, a local community blog based in New Jersey, about shoppers’ obsession with Whole Food’s newly released reusable bags. I thought this was a great idea, considering we accumulate massive amounts of waste in plastics, annually — a mind-boggling estimation of about 150 bags per person, per year. Others apparently shared my enthusiasm, for on the day these eco-friendly bags were released in the uppity town of Montclair, N.J., the article reported a line about 60 people long outside of the store. But when the reporter asked a woman why she was there, she responded, “It’s about status.” So according to this class-conscious shopper, investing in green products is not only a form of environmental support, but also a way to maintain her elitism.
“How did we get to this point?” I thought.
I write for an environmental news blog, RiverWired.com, and it dawned on me a few weeks into my writing with them that I was only featuring green consumerism — sustainable pet products, green professions, green shoe companies. I had fallen for the scam. What I once valued as a strong, empowering and proactive movement had been captured by celebrities and corporations alike, making it the trendiest new fad around. Additionally, environmental ethics are now serving as selling points for corporate America to brainwash people into excess consumerism.
The United States is buying its way into the green movement, and, as a result, the cumulative effect of our consumption remains enormous and hazardous. According to the New York Times, around 35 million Americans now claim to regularly buy earth-friendly products. Corporate Watch referred to it as a SnackWell’s moment — “confronted with a box of fat-free, devil’s food chocolate cookies, which seem deliciously guilt-free, they consume the entire box, avoiding any fats, but loading up on calories and carbs.”
Unfortunately, in the end, it’s easier to buy conscientiously than to live conscientiously. Accordingly, some have become so disillusioned by what environmental awareness means, that they believe changing the way they buy things will ultimately make a difference. I’m not saying that green consumerism does not help to some extent, but many times, people are also taking these actions for the wrong reasons — like status.
Furthered by this idea of ‘good’ consumerism, the green movement is quickly becoming a high-end trend that people believe they cannot afford — something people are starting to associate with snobbery and a means to purchase and advertise self-righteousness.
In April 2008, Mercedes-Benz will not release a hybrid vehicle, but a convenient folding bike instead. Of course, there aren’t even enough bike racks in our country to motivate or sustain people to want to ride bikes, but I bet one would surely look chic and socially conscious in their Benz-cycle.
On Nov. 14, NPR ran a special on “All Things Considered” titled, “At Barney’s, Green Is the New Black.” The broadcast went on to describe how Barney’s has heartily embraced environmental branding. So reads the description from the NPR Web site: “It’s a symbol of how chic environmentalism has become. But when causes become trends, who wins?”
Those who can afford to maintain the most posh trends know the logistics of green consumerism well. Manhattan’s West Side is a perfect example of this, inundated with green apartments overlooking the city. These apartment buildings are deemed sustainable, in that they incorporate recycled or renewable materials that slash energy use and water consumption with features like photovoltaic cells, internal sewage treatment systems and roofs covered in soil and vegetation.
Great idea, but it further removes people from the realities of the situation. There are villages eroding, and thousands of people are dying from environmental disasters that are a direct result from global warming. As these Manhattanites ascend to the top level of their high rises, others are literally sinking under the ocean. In some north Atlantic coastal regions the permafrost is eroding and completely wiping out entire villages and homes of families who have lived there for hundreds of years.
Aside from product-based, high-class absolution, the environmental movement carries a shallow mass appeal by tapping into our popular culture like, say, an oil well. I believe the environmental movement of this decade has been very much a youth movement, and as a result, people have interpreted it as something youthful, hip and trendy. I love that it’s youthful and vibrant, and that I can be a fundamental part of it. But as the corporate bigwigs of this nation usually do, they have stripped something of its goodness and purity and morphed it into something manufactured and unnatural.
Perhaps I am too cynical, but the term “green consumerism” itself, is oxymoronic. There is no longer time to waste, buying toward a clearer social consciousness. Education is key, of course, but let’s do it in a more ethical manner, one that actually has a global context, one that is focused on larger concerns than Whole Foods reusable bags and fancy bicycles. In the meantime, Natalie Portman reminds you that if you purchase “this fluorescent bulb,” you can change lives.
Julia Pergolini is a junior English major who is NOT a plastic bag. Email her at jpergol1[at]ithaca.edu.