Green Consumerism, Part 1 – “capitalist consumerism with green characteristics”

Green Consumerism has become a big deal lately, and with good reason.  People are concerned about the environment, about global warming and the dangers of pesticides and toxins, and they want to do something, clearly.  And buying “green” goods is an easy step and an obvious step to take – it is heavily promoted and it doesn’t require much effort.

In years past, if you wanted organic produce and recycled toilet paper, you might have to go to special stores, but now in many cases you can satisfy your green consumer needs at your regular supermarket. Especially, of course, if your regular supermarket is a Whole Foods. But as I argued in an earlier post, green consumerism is not really an answer to the problems we face.  It’s a help, certainly, a lot better than nothing.

But insofar as the “green” is simply a modifier of consumerism, we are not really addressing the main driving force behind not only the impending ecological catastrophe, but also the Götterdämmerung capitalism that is largely responsible for it, and also for a host of other social ills.

“Green” consumerism is a way for this system to take our desires for a better world (any world at all?) and recuperate them, make them serve to perpetuate the system of globalized corporate capitalism as it stands for as long as possible with as few changes as possible – especially to the power and profits of the elite. What we need is not “capitalist consumerism with greenie characteristics” (to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping), but a complete rethinking of consumerism, and of globalized corporate capitalism.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” a slogan from the 70’s and the first period of real ecological activism, actually seems a more radical – and sustainable – approach than green consumerism, in that it argues for less consumerism as the primary focus: the first step is reduce, not buy the toilet paper made from 50% post-consumer waste at Safeway instead of the soft, cushiony stuff.

[For more on reduce/reuse/recycle and the “waste hierarchy,” you can start with Wikipedia.]

For people around 40, “Schoolhouse Rock” will be a nostalgic childhood memory.  Jack Johnson, the surfing troubadour, has taken the Schoolhouse Rock style and applied it to an updating of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra:

An article in The Washington Post (of all places) lays out succinctly much the same argument as I have sketchily rehearsed here and I encourage you to check it out: “Greed in the Name of Green.” In it, Paul Hawken, one of the founders of Smith&Hawken, puts the issue in the plainest possible terms:

Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.

“Having less” doesn’t have to be some grim, gray state of deprivation. Much – most – of the “more” we have reflects insecurities and false needs – and the psychological savvy of the “dream factory” of advertising and marketing. (More on this at a later date)

But “having less” is a real problem when it means not just less stuff for us, but less profit and power for the global corporate elite, as it assuredly does. So there is a huge push behind this business (pretty much) as usual approach of “green consumerism.” It’s become big business, bolstered by a range of outlets (eg, Whole Foods), brands and global product lines (eg Ecover), labelling and “approval” strategies (CCOF, etc.), consumer guides (online and offline), and so on. All designed to keep us buying – and in fact buying more, in some cases, for instance when we replace all our still-functioning incandescent bulbs with new, energy-efficient compact flourescents, and get a whole new line of organic cotton towels and sheets so we can sleep green.

Part 2 of this post will look in more detail about the big business of green consumerism, and ways in which it is used to channel our desire for change back into business (pretty much) as usual. And in Part 3 I hope to explore some alternatives.

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