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Is green consumerism a contradiction?

For some folks, buying a hybrid seems like the greenest thing to do.
For some folks, buying a hybrid seems like the greenest thing to do.
Todd Bigelow/Aurora/Getty Images

­W­­hen hybrid cars went mainstream, it seemed p­erfectly logical. If you've got to drive, why not emit less carbon dioxide in the process? Installing solar panels or a backyard wind turbine, buying locally grown food -- these are all great w­ays to get the necessities while doing less harm to the planet. In recent years, though, you've probably noticed "green" products popping up in ever-more-surprising industries. You can now get a Wells Fargo credit card that automatically applies your transaction fees to carbon credits intended to offset the items you purchase with that card.

Green consumerism has hit the ground running. It's a relatively recent phenomenon in which consumers -- perhaps the driving force behind environmental damage in the first place -- choose to buy, say, a tomato plant that comes in a biodegradable container instead of in a plastic one. We've gone far beyond the hybrid car to arrive at organic unbleached cotton T-shirts, bamboo bed linens and biodegradable to-go drink lids. You can "green up" your computer with nontoxic flash drives and go the extra mile to buy an Energy Star washing machine instead of the old power-guzzling one.

­For most of us, these green measures are a sign of progress. They're helping the environment, right? If the sheer number of "environmentally friendly" product­s on the market is any indication, consumers seem pretty eager to do their part. And whether the man­ufacturers are acting out of genuine environmental interest or simple financial interest in meeting consumer demand -- that's beside the point, right? We're reducing our carbon footprint, recycling stuff and supporting local farmers.

It's hard to argue against the benefits of buying green. But it's not impos­sible. If you take the long view of environmental impact, "green consumerism" may sound something like "Marxist capitalism." Can we have both? Is buying green really helping the environment, or is it just obscuring the real issues affecting our planet?

In this article, we'll look at the pros and cons of green consumerism and examine whether we really can affect change simply by altering our buying habits. It's no simple question, but it seems to start with this: What do you want to achieve by buying green?