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The Trap of Green Consumerism

I often get asked whether I think fair trade is a bad idea, and my response is usually "it's much better to buy fair trade than to buy unfair trade - but if you care about farmers, ask them what they want." In general, I'm not favorably inclined toward green consumerism.

The notion that somehow we can transform the world by shopping is a debilitating one, and it's one that George Monbiot has recently done a fine job of skewering. In his latest, he references a piece in the journal Nature in which it appears that consumers who buy green goods feel that their purchases allow them to behave in ways that are environmentally far worse. The researchers call it ‘the licensing effect.'

I couldn't find the study Monbiot mentioned, but I did find a study by the same authors at the University of Toronto, in which they say, yes, people behave like assholes after they buy their recycled toilet paper, but they also behave better if merely exposed to green messages.

So what is it about ‘green' goods that turns us into jerks? It's the act of purchasing them. This isn't to argue that we shouldn't have goods produced with less cruelty, exploitation, resource-waste and culture-destruction. It's just that branding them with a feel-good label actually corrodes the benefits of sustainable manufacturing.

What's the way out of this? Easy. Fight to make sure all goods need to be produced in this way: in other words, make the label redundant.

Not only will we have better consumer goods, but we'll also be worse consumers. And that's a good thing. So much of the food movement is driven by a ‘look to the label' approach. And, again, don't get me wrong. I want to know where the food comes from, and that it's sustainable, local, produced without exploitation of labor or the environment. What I'm saying is that the label, ultimately, is one of the worst ways of doing this. Because what this latest research demonstrates is that buying green is a way of turning guilt into a commodity.

After filling up a trolley with ‘green' goods, consumers can gag the nagging voices concerned that it's unbridled consumerism itself that lies at the heart of environmental destruction. After throwing a few coins in the direction of the sirens of sustainability, people can behave worse than before, their ears plugged by having bought green goods. (In the Toronto experiment, primed with the virtue of green consumerism, people felt readier to lie, cheat and steal.)

But exposure to ‘green' products without purchasing them serves to make us more aware of one another, and more inclined to be generous. Again, the Toronto experiment showed that people who were merely exposed to green messaging gave a third more money away in a dictator game than those who weren't exposed.

In other words, there are conditions under which we can be more altruistic, more generous, and more aware. But those conditions are killed by the act of purchase, of engaging with the world and its problems as if those problems were commodities, rather than political challenges that will be solved not by shopping, but by civic engagement.

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