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

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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