Is green consumerism a contradiction?

Dark Green Living: A Clean Planet

Demand for organic cotton has driven production in countries like Burkina Faso.
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 below.

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  • 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.