Aug 1, 2007

"Green" Shopping One More Time

I did this radio show on Monday that actually pitted "green" shopping advocates against the anti-consumerist/simple lifer mindset. It was not a positive experience for me in the moment, but it's meant that folks are pressing me to talk about this so here's a bit of how I approach this.

The Compact was a challenge to not buy new products for one year. We made a few exceptions, but the point was to reduce our personal landfill contributions among other things.

We advocate reducing consumption because it is evident that the American standard of living is not tenable on a global scale: there are not enough resources available for all of the 6.7 billion people on earth to have the average American lifestyle. Even if we made all products environmentally friendly, there would still be inequity in their distribution because there is not enough to go around. Thus, as the "green" products market explodes, I do not feel that I now have license to buy the unnecessary junk that's being marketed.

This problem is pronounced for my household as we cannot afford to buy into this market of "ethical" goods. We couldn't buy a new refrigerator, even if our landlord said it was ok. If we can't, as Americans in their twenties with college degrees, then it seems like a fallacy to think this is what will preserve rare species, slow climate change, and create sustainable communities across the planet.

Rather the "green" market seems like a continuation of over-consumption that's designed to eliminate the responsibility one may feel about the realistic footprint and lifespan of a product. It's the same market approach that brought us to the threshold upon which we now stand. If I have to buy new, then sure, I'll buy the "green" product. But I won't fool myself into thinking I need a personal espresso machine just because I can get one that barely draws any watts.

My framework with respect to over-consumption reflects a need for community based solutions. Rather than everyone having a personal espresso machine, I think we're much better off walking to the local coffee shop w/ our cups in hand. "Green" shopping is a continuation of the individualist paradigm that has led so many of us to think each home needs it's own steam cleaner and chainsaw, even if those items are only used every six months.

Once we have all of these products, we've long forgotten that their materials were extracted, they were assembled, shipped, marketed, and then used. Each of these steps has an impact, and I sincerely doubt that each one is being made "green".

So for me, if I want something, I'll first decide whether I really need it. If I have to shop, I'll try used first. (And you might be shocked at even the "green" products you can find used. Just look at Craigslist for an energy star refrigerator.)


Unknown said...

How did all that go on the radio show?

Beth Elmore said...

Absolutely! You are so right. I've been looking at several "green" sites and the consumerism is really bugging me.

Wendy said...

It took me a while to figure it out, but I'm with you. It doesn't make sense to spend money on MORE stuff, just because it's green. It's one thing if you're replacing an item that's no longer functioning, but to simply buy for the sake of buying ... that's not "green" at all, regardless of what the label says.

My husband figured it out way before I did, and that was his argument against the hybrid cars. He's not against them, per se, just against the idea of trading in a three or four year old car just to get the hybrid.

I wish I were in CA so that I could have heard the show. Sounds interesting.

Blue Yonder said...

Great insights, Rachel! Is the radio show archived online somewhere?

Anonymous said...

You pretty much nailed it right on the head. If something isn't needed, then to buy a green product just because one thinks they are helping the environment is to fall prey to marketing and take one step back for every step forward. Nothing is really changed. Trying to love the environment just becomes another means of moving merchandise that people don't really need as much as they have been brainwashed to believe.

Gavi said...

Thank you so much for voicing what has been on my mind for a while now. When I see the proliferation of green "stuff", it saddens me to think that the consumerism is simply continuing in a different form. I love your example about the espresso machine vs. going into your local coffee shop.

Abstract Figure said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have been trying to not purchase anything (new or used) in the past two years.

We thought it would be hard (or almost impossible) with two young children ages 5 and 6.

It turned out our children were quite receptive to the idea and they are having fun with it. They now remind us, "Don't buy anything unless we really need it, like food or water."

In addition to not buying new "things", we have given away half of our "couldn't live without" junk.

We now feel quite liberated and can actually park both of our cars in the garage.

By the way, this has helped us bring up our personal savings rate to 70% of our net income.

David Garrett said...

NICE!!!! I haven't checked in in a while and I sure picked a good day to take a peek. I really enjoyed this article.

Anonymous said...

Back in July I decided I would not buy anything but the basic necessities starting on my birthday, Aug. 30. I will do this for one year, to see what happens. This pertains to food as well, so this means no processed foods and buying organic or from local farmers as much as possible. To me, this is all "green", all connected to minimizing our footprint on the earth. What we are doing can be considered "green", because it contributes to a more sustainable lifestyle. Of course it's silly to buy things we don't need, whether it's green or not. But personally, I think both concepts, buying "green" (i.e., organic and local, less gas consumption to deliver food, etc) and not getting sucked into consumer culture, can be thoughtfully integrated.

Anonymous said...

It's been said that the 21st century is the time of "conspicuous conservation", of showing status and superiority by the ostentatious display of stuff purchased in the name of energy efficiency and conservation - owning the most fuel-efficient car on the block, for example.

Unknown said...

Is there any way to find people in Minnesota who are participating in the Compact? I'm working with high school journalists, and we'd love to find someone to profile.