Shopping Our Way to Sustainability?

In last week’s Treehugger interview, green business guru Joel Makower claimed that the number one “eco-myth” floating around out there is that “we can shop our way to environmental health.” The Associated Press’ J.M. Hirsch (via ENN) considers the concept of green consumption, and notes that many concerned shoppers are likely to leave the market just as confused as they were when they came in:

Looking to green up your life?

You could commute in a hybrid, sip fair trade coffee, swaddle your tyke in organic cotton, spend vacations saving rain forests, bank your retirement on socially responsible investments, even power your home from a low-pollution utility.

But while all that green may leave you feeling good, does it really leave the world a better place? Or just thin your wallet?

The answer isn’t always clear. Which isn’t much help for the millions of Americans navigating the increasingly politicized world of eco-consumerism, where everyday decisions — from which eggs go in your omelet to where you get your mortgage — take on new and confusing dimensions.

Part of the problem is it isn’t just the environment that’s at stake. Green products and services, including organic foods and fashion, are among the fastest growing retail categories, putting tens of billions of dollars up for grabs.

Hoping for a cut, some companies engage in so-called greenwashing, in which products are marketed as eco-friendly, but don’t live up to the hype, says Kristi Wiedemann, a researcher with Consumers Union, a nonprofit that evaluates products and services.

Combined with a lack of standards for some green-inspired labeling, including “environmentally friendly” and “natural,” those empty promises make it challenging for consumers to know which products make a difference.

“The market is bombarded with these claims and consumers really have no way of knowing,” says Wiedemann.

Other take a different approach: the Center for a New American Dream, for instance, promotes responsible consumerism, and believes that a swell of market demand for more sustainable products and services can result in big environmental changes. Hirsch points to a topic we’ve considered many times before here, Wal-Mart’s recent sustainability initiatives, and notes that the giant retailer can have widespread effects on consumers’ and suppliers’ environmental footprint, but that questions still remain about some of the finer details of these plans (particularly large purchasing of organic foods). He notes that simply choosing a green product (or one that claims to be green) isn’t enough, and that consumers have to engage in a high level of vigilance and still consider their roles as conspicuous consumers, not matter how earth-friendly the products they buy.

Hirsch’s last points are ones that many of us who promote buying green, and believe it can have a large-scaled educational impact, often forget or ignore: we still have to address American-style consumption to really make a dent in our wasteful ways. Many of us probably do feel even more entitled to consume if we choose green products, and that creates a sort of treehugging version of the same old mindset: there’s always going to be enough ________ (resources, energy, water, etc.) to maintain our lifestyle. Green products as currently produced are a step in the right direction. Until more of those products are designed by “cradle to cradle” standards where all elements of their lifecycles receive scrutiny, though, we’re likely only making a small dent. That leaves those of us who pay attention to such things a bit stranded, but, fortunately, we do live in an age where consumers’ voices seem to be reaching the board rooms: even greenwashing shows that, at some level, businesses are getting the hint. We can’t settle for greenwashing or hyped claims of sustainability, though. As more corporations adopt “sustainable business” practices, we have to continue to hold their feet to the fire and not only demand the most ecologically-conscious practices, but demonstrate the profit potential of such practices by doing our own homework. It’s easy to fall into complacency — we all do it at some level — but the rise of “green consciousness” in the developed world means we’ve been given a “teachable moment,” not a chance to rest on our laurels.

OK, I’m ranting a bit (and I’m just as guilty as anyone of the faults mentioned) — how do we gently and positively guide other consumers into making the most environmentally-conscious choices in their purchases, or into choosing not to purchase when appropriate?

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