Is green consumerism a contradiction?

Light Green Living: A Slightly Less Dirty Planet

Consumer demand for organic food is so high, it's starting to outstrip the supply of organically raised products.
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.