October 18, 2012

Buying Green: Will it Really Save the Planet? ~ Erin DeMarco

The green movement has taken off and in true American fashion, so has the market for environmentally-friendly goods and services.

Even Target gives you the option to buy a conventional product like Tide laundry detergent or an alternative “green” product like Seventh Generation laundry detergent. Gone are the days when my biggest decision in determining which type of soap to use came down to whether I wanted my clothes to smell like Mountain Spring or Clean Breeze; now to navigate the aisles of Target, I have to bring along my moral compass.

I will admit that I am a bit of a sucker for all-things-eco. I enjoy knowing that there isn’t any chlorine in my tampons or heavy metals in my deodorant and that my produce hasn’t—at least intentionally— been sprayed with pesticides. A new dimension has been added to my criteria for what makes it into my shopping basket.

And what’s in—or not in—my shopping basket says a lot about who I am.

Having been born and bred in a country where everything is for sale, I’ve learned how to purchase the identity I want. If I want to seem progressive and sophisticated, I can buy that identity and if I want to be a patriotic sports-fan, I can buy that identity.

The thing that baffles me as a consumer is not how to read the labels or get what I want, but how to leave things on the shelf. There is a spectrum of green and it ranges from light to dark, and what separates the light green shoppers from the dark green shoppers is not what they buy, it’s how much they buy.

This realization came to me as an epiphany while cruising the aisles at Whole Foods. I was mindlessly wandering about the store looking for something to buy. I wasn’t particularly hungry and I didn’t need anything, I was just there for the sake of it because being there made me feel good and because a lot of their stuff makes me feel good.

And then I figured it out—buying new things makes me feel good.

As I arrived at this observation, I was reaching for a new flavor of beeswax lip balm and I pulled my arm back. I realized that nothing had changed; I hadn’t changed.

I had assumed that I could continue to shop as often as I always had, that I could continue to indulge the unidentifiable need for more, that I could continue to let feeling good come from shopping, as long as what I bought was certified organic, featured on TreeHugger, or got a rave review from my yoga instructor.

At the end of the day, my consumer habits were the same: I was still using what I purchased to make a statement about myself, I was still trying to buy a lifestyle and this latest chapter in my life as a consumer was even harder to understand because my ethics, my politics and my entire belief structure was in between the lines.

It is this consumer identity that needs to be eradicated in order for the United States to really change the outlook for the environment.

Liz Lemon (30 Rock, duh) once said that sometimes the right thing and the hard thing are the same thing, so it was no surprise that changing my spending habits by closely examining what I really need would be significantly harder than simply switching out the toxic laundry detergent for the trendy, green laundry detergent.

Was buying green products just making me more comfortable in an increasingly uncomfortable world?

Was I unwittingly avoiding the crisis facing our planet by buying my way into a new wave of smarter shopping, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to be smarter shoppers?

If you are supposed to be the change you wish to see in the world, then I certainly wasn’t it. Indeed, I was shopping smarter, but the fact is I was still shopping and frequently. I echo the sentiment set forward by Annie Leonard in a video called the Story of Stuff, which is that I was still everything the U.S. government wanted me to be: a consumer first and a citizen second.

The health of our economy is at odds with the health of our planet.

In order for the U.S. to retain its hegemonic power, for it to maintain its reputation as the leading nation, it must continue to have a strong, fast-paced economy. The free-market economy runs on a closed loop of supply and demand. Unfortunately, this system puts our planet right in the cross-fire.

When consumers demand a faster computer, suppliers must extract the materials for building it from the earth, and then assemble the pieces in a factory which pollutes the air and then transport the finished product to stores around the world, all so that consumers can throw it in the elusive “trash” when technology advances again.

This is called the materials economy and it is the materials economy which poses the greatest threat to the environment. My switch from buying conventional goods to buying environmentally-friendly goods still fits into the materials economy, and so I am still threatening the environment.

So what do I do? Go back to buying Tide with Bleach? Skip the washing machine altogether and dig out my grandmother’s washboard? Well I would, but I don’t have time for that. I have to work at least 40 hours a week to sustain my new green lifestyle!

This is where we return to the economy. In order to save the planet, we need a different type of economy. I’m completely serious. We have to make it fair for everyone. Why should I be able to afford safe, non-toxic tampons, but not the girl-next-door? Why is safety a luxury?

Well, that is because as citizens, we haven’t demanded that harmful products simply be removed from the market and be replaced with the safer, longer-lasting products made more affordable by government subsidies.

We have not demanded that the alternative become the new standard.

My assumption that buying green products would save the forests and the fish and reverse global warming was wrong. Switching to buying green products alone is not going to save the planet any more than going to church on Christmas is going to save a Christian. Yes it will help and yes it’s a step in the right direction, but we need deeper, more profound change.

First of all, we need to reduce what we buy. Second of all, instead of buying shiny, new eco products, we need to repair what we have and look for suitable, used alternatives.

Lastly, we need to raise awareness and exercise our muscles as citizens to demand that our government practice responsible resource extraction, place strict regulations on corporations to implement fair labor conditions, ban the production and sale of harmful and toxic products and place an emphasis on preventative health care by subsidizing local farmers instead of subsidizing the food industry.

The green movement needs to penetrate not just the market; it also needs to penetrate the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government at the federal, state and local level.

The United Nations Environment Programme defines the green economy as one which “improves human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” and at the most foundational level will be “low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.”

This description of a green economy is far more comprehensive and sustainable than the simplistic, superficial model we have in the U.S. which emphasizes the green market in our capitalist economy.

I am thankful that an increasing number of U.S. companies offer safe, non-toxic products. This is without a doubt a step in the right direction. I am also really glad that organic food has a place at the conventional supermarket. This is dissolving barriers and improving access. I hope that this trend continues to grow, but I hope that our rate of consumption does not.

When we collectively slow the pace of the goods-in, goods-out system by examining what we really need, start being mindful of ways to reduce and reuse, and when we take back our identity as citizens instead of consumers, we will begin to really improve the outlook for the environment.

Erin DeMarco is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. You can find her here.



Editor: Jamie Morgan

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