Is green consumerism a contradiction?

By: Julia Layton  | 
Hybrid cars
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?



Light Green Living: A Slightly Less Dirty Planet

Organic food at a store.
Consumer demand for organic food is so high, it's starting to outstrip the supply of organically raised products.
Tim Boyle/­Getty Images

There's green living, and then there's light green living. A green lifestyle might involve trading in a trans-Atlantic flight to a European vacation for a less carbon-emitting bike ride to a local bed and breakfast. Light green might mean heading off to London and buying some carbon offsets, conveniently offered in-flight on Virgin Airlines jets [source: Marketing Green].

­The expanding trend toward green consumerism indicates, at the very least, widespread recognition that the planet is in trouble, and some sort of intention to do something about it -- however small that something may be. Maybe that step is picking the compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) instead of the incandescent one. There's little doubt that when it comes to a necessity like lightbulbs, green consumerism works -- few people are going back to candlelight in order to help save the planet.


And there is some evidence that even small steps are inching toward larger impact. With growing consumer demand, large multinational corporations are starting to turn to a greener style of business. Carbon offset credit cards and commitments by banks like Bank of America and Citigroup to jointly set aside $70 billion specifically for "green investments" indicates a trend moving beyond individual choices between the recycled-packaging hand soap and the nonrecycled stuff in the aisle at Wal-Mart [source: Marketing Green]. (And, Wal-Mart, by the way, has found a way to greenly save itself billions of dollars by reducing its packaging materials and requiring its suppliers to do the same [source: Marketing Green].)

The upside of light green living then, as tentatively supported by some of the more mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club, appears to lie not only in its assistance (slight as it may be) in slowing environmental damage, but also what it means for the future of the movement overall [source: Williams]. Green consumerism appears to be a gateway step toward significant action [source: Williams]. The marijuana of environmental activism, if you will.

What's the problem, then?

The dark green purists have a very different take on green consumerism. According to some activists, green consumerism might actually hurt the green movement instead of helping it.


Dark Green Living: A Clean Planet

Organic cotton.
Demand for organic cotton has driven production in countries like Burkina Faso.
Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

The problem with green consumerism, as set forth by some long-time environmental activists, appears the be summed up with the sentiment: "It's guilt-free now -- buy, buy, buy!"

­There's an inherent problem with "green cons­umerism." It's an oxymoron. Consumerism, or buying stuff -- and establishing your identity with the things you choose to buy -- is simply bad for the environment. That stuff we buy has to be manufactured from other stuff we take from the Earth, one way or another. Manufacturing usually requires the use of energy. Shipping items to stores uses energy. With "green" products showing up all over the place, consumers are being offered a way of foregoing sacrifice while still feeling like they're helping the Earth. And technically, they're not.


Here's where dark greeners take further issue with the trend: If people actually think the­y're saving the planet by purchasing organic cotton instead of polyester, they might be lulled into a false sense of security and righteousness (aka the halo effect). In reality, there are hardly any standards that dictate what is and is not an eco-friendly product. Retailers are pretty much free to decide for themselves, and some may err on the side of overstatement in order to capitalize on the trend. It's a retail decision some call greenwashing.

Perhaps the biggest issue has to do with long-term effects. When we can just buy a different lightbulb and feel "green," where's the incentive to do real good? When it comes to reversing the environmental damage already done, "real good" is going to require at least some level of sacrifice, along with intense pressure on governments to make serious changes in environmental policy. A push toward green consumerism doesn't really get that point across.

To put green consumerism in perspective: Wal-Mart wants to cut energy use in its stores by 20 percent by 2014. It's a real sign of the times when consumer heaven commits publicly to such eco-friendly plans. And if the mega-store achieves its lofty goal, one coal-fired power plant will offset those energy savings in a month [source: Motavalli].

Still, it's not like that power plant is going online just because Wal-Mart cuts its energy expenditure. The world is still going to be using less power overall. It seems, then, if we can't legitimately call any type of consumerism "green," we can at least call it "greener."

For more information on green consumerism and the environmental movement, look over the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What are examples of green consumerism?
Some examples of green consumerism include choosing to buy fair trade coffee, organic produce, and energy-efficient appliances.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Alter, Lloyd. "Stop the Presses: Green Consumerism Exposed." TreeHugger. March 6, 2008.
  • Green Consumerism: Problem, Panacea or Just One of Many Good Ideas? Lazy Environmentalist. March 7, 2008.
  • Green May Be Ho-Hum for the Holidays, But It's Here to Stay. Marketing Green. Dec. 12, 2007.
  • Motavalli, Jim. "The Halo Effect: Your Hybrid Alone Won't Save the Planet." The Daily Green. Oct. 5, 2007.
  • Williams, Alex. "Buying Into the Green Movement." The New York Times. July 1, 2007.