Earth Day 2010: Buying Green vs. Being Green

BlogHer Original Post

Right now, my e-mail inbox is bursting with Earth Day PR pitches. "Please tell your readers to buy a T-shirt made from recycled plastic bottles, a recycled toothbrush, compostable cups and biodegradable plates, organic "me-shirts," bioplastic iPhone case and baby wipes, reusable containers and utensils, green tips from L'Oréal, organic cotton sheets, Sunchips in biodegradable bags, green cleaning products, eco-friendly jewelry, organic underwear, organic salad greens, or an American flag made from recycled plastic..."

Earth Day email inbox

Let's buy, buy, buy our way to a clean and green tomorrow.

Please forgive the sarcastic tone. Because I must admit that several of the PR pitches in my inbox are from companies I believe in and have promoted on my blog Fake Plastic Fish. I certainly support plastic-free products when I feel they are healthier than the alternative and can help us reduce our plastic consumption. And I want to support small companies whose offerings can help us reduce waste, avoid toxic chemicals, and lower our ecological footprint. In fact, just last week, I sponsored a couple of giveaways of products I felt were worthwhile.

But do I think that merely switching from plastic to a different material without lowering our overall consumption is going to protect the planet for future generations? I do not.

Green Gone WrongAnd neither does Heather Rogers, author of the brand new book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution.

Having spent years traveling the world to examine the green initiatives and products touted as organic, eco-friendly, Fair Trade, low carbon, etc., Rogers reveals that many of the green alternatives we choose are anything but. And the reason has to do with a capitalist system that values monetary profits over true planetary and social justice.

In studying our food systems, Rogers' investigations into organic local farming in New York state reveal that many of the small farmers who show up at the farmers market each week with food priced well above conventionally farmed products are barely making a living, and many face foreclosure due to an infrastructure and government policy that supports big industrial agriculture over small farms. Traveling to Paraguay, she discovers that big organic companies like Wholesome Sweeteners, suppliers of organic and Fair Trade sugar products, is clear-cutting the native forests and degrading the land for sugar plantations. How organic is that?

In Indonesian Borneo, Rogers witnesses rainforests cleared and burned to make way for palm oil, the crop increasingly used to produce biofuels, the "green" alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, she learns that when we factor in the loss of carbon-sequestering trees and the burning process itself, palm oil biofuel actually generates 10 times more CO2 emissions than petroleum.

Looking to fuel efficiency as a step in the right direction, Rogers visits the three major auto companies in Detroit and discovers that while these companies have already developed the technology for incredibly fuel-efficient cars, they have stalled on manufacturing them for sale in the U.S., where the profit margins are much lower than are those of big gas guzzlers.

Investigating the truth about carbon credits, particularly the voluntary credits we as consumers can purchase to offset our emissions from flying, driving, or basic living, Rogers comes to see that rather than actually offsetting the emissions we are generating now, credits used for tree-planting programs actually only neutralize greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of the trees. Those kinds of programs do not help with CO2 emissions now, when we need them most.

What's more, some carbon credit programs, contrary to their mission, actually incentivize the use of fossil fuels in developing nations since the money from carbon credits is not provided to countries that already have clean energy. And because there is no official registry or auditing of these programs, consumers have no way to find out what's really being done with the money they spend to assuage their guilt.

Natural Capitalism?

Natural capitalism, as promoted by thinkers like Paul Hawken and William McDonough, asserts that "we can use the levers of the market to fix ecological breakdown." Advocates cite companies like Xerox that have saved money by cutting their consumption of energy and resources. But Rogers counters their arguments by following this train of thought further. She asks, "What do the companies do with this cost savings?" Most big companies, like the Wal-Marts of the world, will simply reinvest in expansion and growth, making more product to sell and opening more stores. The energy savings per unit is canceled out by the increased number of units manufactured.

Only when we rethink how and what we value -- so that we no longer base well-being and quality of life on excess production, consumption, and wasting -- will we truly be able to address global warming and other forms of ecological ruin.

What's the Solution?

To Rogers, the free market is not going to get us out of our predicament. We must cut our consumption. And we're going to need regulations to reign in a market based solely on monetary profit, adjusting our values to consider the full impact of the things we consume rather than simply the ticket price.

For example, instead of a Farm Bill that continues to give big subsidies to industrial agriculture, we need a large portion of those funds allocated to provide distribution systems, loans, education, and other kinds of support for small organic farmers so that they can make a living wage.

So why doesn't our government support small farms, fuel-efficient vehicles, mass transit and bike-friendly roads, or energy efficient housing? Rogers contends:

Part of what is holding us back is a lack of political will. When that expression is used, it often evokes leaders who don't have the guts to stand up to the moneyed interests they rely on to get elected. However true this may be, political will comes not just from leaders. It also originates with a public that has the determination to push for fundamental transformation that can lead to real solutions. A crucial step in getting there is informing ourselves about what options exist. Industries such as oil, coal, automotive, agribusiness, and manufacturing and their friends in government have a lot to lose if things change too much. So, directly and indirectly, these powerful interests marginalize and muffle genuinely greener efforts. Perhaps practicing environmental responsibility means granting ourselves the time to find out who’s doing what the help the planet, and, if we want, to participate, or study up on it, or create something of our own.

It means that to create the kind of world we want, we have to do more than simply buy products that are touted as green. How do we know if they truly are? How do we learn the real story behind the marketing pitch?

Personally, I'm a skeptic. When I get a marketing pitch for my blog, I generally have more questions than the PR rep can readily answer. I want to know exactly what ingredients are in the product. What tests have been done. What chemicals have been added to the supposedly compostable packaging and whether it really does compost as they claim it does. If a product is touted as recyclable, I want to know how the company intends to take it back and recycle it, rather than leaving it up to my community’s over-burdened recycling system. And I want to know why we need to buy such a product in the first place. Is there a way to get the same benefit without continuing to extract resources? Can we rent or borrow instead? Can we buy it used instead of new?

What we don't buy or consume is probably more important than what we do.

As far as advocating for change on the governmental level, we don’t all have time to study up on every piece of environmental legislation in our local, state, and national government, but we can make a point of attending a city council meeting several times a year, speaking to our neighbors about issues that affect our communities, and investigating a few of the issues that we are particularly concerned about. Those of us with more time can join a campaign or start one ourselves. And we can reach outside our comfort zones once in a while to ask businesses and store owners for what we want instead of simply settling for the lesser of evils on the existing menu.

Honestly? While I am not a judgmental person, I do sometimes get weary of hearing, "We don't have that where I live. I can't do X, Y or Z because my community or local stores don't offer that." My answer: So ask for it. Ask for it, ask for it, ask for it. Get your friends to ask for it. Make phone calls. Get your friends to make phone calls. Write letters. Get your friends to write letters. Put up a web site. Create a petition. In the end, you might not get what you want. But you probably never will if you don't ask. By the way, there's a great conversation happening on the Fake Plastic Fish discussion board about letters folks are writing to stores to ask for what they want.

What are some of your pet issues? And what can you do, not only on Earth Day, but in the coming year to vote not only with your wallet but with your mouth and feet and pen and ballot?

And now, after all this heavy stuff, I'll leave you with this catchy tune. Instead of buying green, just use less.

(Thanks to BlogHer CE Siel Ju from Green LA Girl for giving me the catchy title for this post.)

Related Posts:

Martha Danly from Green By Design:  Greenwashing—It's Like Whitewashing, Only Worse

Drea Knufken from  The Top 25 Greenwashed Products in America

Diane MacEachern from Big Green Purse: What Does Natural Mean?

Siel from Green LA Girl and BlogHer: How Jaded Environmentalists Celebrate Earth Day

Beth Terry: attempting to live plastic-free and blogging the heck out of it at Follow her on Twitter.


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