The Debate over Green Consumerism (Can we buy our way out of this problem?)

New York Times writer Alex Williams and executive editor Alex Steffen did a bit of squaring off this week over the topic of green consumerism, highlighting a growing debate over whether the increasing availability of eco-friendly products is helping or hindering the fight against global warming.

For William’s part, his article called, “Buying into the Green Movement,” is both part sardonic criticism of folks who, through their eco-sensitive lifestyles are defining the “current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement,” and part examination of what he describes as a “division in the environmental movement,” between those who celebrate green consumerism as a sign that folks are aware of the issue and making consumer choices based on that awareness versus those who say that these green consumers are “eco-narcissists,” who are trying to buy their way out of a problem.

In his blog responding to Williams’ article, Steffen says the real point the author should have made is that, “There is no combination of purchasing decisions which will make the current affluent American lifestyle sustainable. You can't shop your way to sustainability, as I've put it before. On a planet running up against so severe a set of deadlines -- global warming, the extinction crisis, the poverty crisis, etc. -- prosperity as currently delivered is frankly immoral, even when purchased with an eco-chic package.”

The debate over green consumerism is an interesting one, indeed. I have posted several entries on this very site highlighting green efforts, and almost always including ways to take personal responsibility for some portion of combating climate change. And almost invariably some of those choices have a consumer element: for example, you can’t really replace your incandescent lightbulbs with energy-saving fluorescents unless you first buy those replacement bulbs. The point, it seems to me, is that if I go out and buy these (expensive) lightbulbs and take the time to install them in my home, isn’t that an indication that, at least on some level, I am starting to not only understand the problem, but make a conscience choice to try to do something to help? And isn’t the first step to finding a solution admitting that there is a problem in the first place?

Williams’ article refers to market research that indicated that people do not believe that, “their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak. They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.”

I find this research encouraging, and I agree that there is a place for eco-sensitive consumerism in the move toward sustainable living. It is a starting point, a place to begin to understand the problem and to begin to feel like you are taking some level of personal responsibility in addressing the problem. Of course more consumption is not the answer, and lulling oneself into complacency with the purchase of a luxury hybrid SUV that gets 20 miles to the gallon is a dangerous path. Yes, consuming less of everything is the answer, but that is an evolutionary step on the journey.

Paul Hawken, for example, has been working on this problem for 20-plus years. No doubt he is frustrated by what he considers the false promise of earth-friendly products. He says that, “Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase. We turn toward the consumption part because that’s where the money is. We tend not to look at the ‘less’ part. So you get these anomalies like 10,000-foot ‘green’ homes being built by a hedge fund manager in Aspen. Or ‘green’ fashion shows. Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence.” But Mr. Hawkens’ first book, The Ecology of Commerce, suggests in its’ very title that there is a direct relationship between the two. So, yes, twenty years later it’s no surprise that he is decrying where commerce and consumers are in their thinking, but it should be at least hopeful to him and those others like him who have been fighting so hard for so long that this issue is now being played out in the mainstream and not on the margins. Individuals are starting to get the picture, and starting to become active. Maybe it’s too late for our baby steps (including more eco-friendly purchasing decisions) to make a difference, but certainly without them we are not going to get the critical mass of people making the political, commercial and individual decisions that will.

Caroline Heine

Posted at 8:22 AM, Jul 05, 2007 in Environment | Permalink | Comments (1)


I think anyone that has been concerned with the limits of natural resources for a long time, recognize green consumerism as a false prophet. At best it is a slight improvement on more of the same and at worse it represents a shadow movement that threatens to hijack our language and ideas to insulate itself from criticism.

One resource citizens can rely on for honest and accurate information about how to lower their footprint is civil society - the millions of organizations that spend day after day working to address environmental degradation and social injustice around the world. Without any direct or tangible benefits to themselves, these groups are discovering solutions and sharing them with the world. As a result of Paul's research, his staff at NCI created WiserEarth, an online tool to allow more discovery and sharing by anyone concerned with social and environmental justice. If this part of civil society is analogous to the immune system, as Paul suggests, then its success depends on the quality of its connections. WiserEarth is a platform to improve the quality of connections geographically and topically.

The knowledge contained within the growing community at WiserEarth will set the standard for which future market forces will respond. All citizens need to recognize the role the government has to play: there is no such thing as a "free" market and the massive amount of hidden subsidies in the market today, make it next to impossible for truly sustainable market solutions to emerge. Our role at the voting booth will always be more important than our role at the cash register.

Posted by: Michael Spalding