Commentary: Green consumption alone will not save the Earth

Do you recall the first time you were identified as a “consumer?” I was labeled a consumer in fifth grade by my social studies textbook. Maybe you, too, have been labeled a consumer. For me, “consumer” was a peculiar and abstract way to think of myself. I had not considered my consumption habits, so, at first, my new identity did not make a lot of sense. OK — I’m a consumer — wonky social science speaks for a person. Whatever.   

That was the 1980s. Fast-forward 35 years. I’m now an environmental science professor, and I’m feeling anxious about the worsening environmental crisis, the injustice of it all and my role as a consumer. We are told that consumption is more than just part of the problem; in many respects, consumption is the problem. At the same time, we are told that a “greener” version of consumption can save the environment. What does that mean? What is green consumption, and what are its prospects for getting us out of our environmental predicament? Can we really buy our way out of this mess? 

First, we need to clarify some terms and correct some myths about consumption. Consumption is a fact of human life. Everyone does it. Moreover, everyone must do it. Consumption is not something you can opt out of, and for most people in the world, it is not something easily or reasonably reduced. That said, as an inheritor of extraordinary privileges, my consumption habits are disproportionately detrimental to the environment. For example, my per-capita carbon emissions are high relative to most other people in the world. Redressing historical inequalities in opportunity (often confused with consumption) is baked into the logic of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the “common but differentiated” responsibilities in the UN’s climate accords.   

In contrast with consumption, consumerism is the ethos of buying stuff beyond one’s needs. It is not a universal human tendency, but a particular outcome of colonization and global capitalist expansion. It is consumerism that is being indicted by environmentalists while also being promoted as a solution to environmental problems. What if we could harness the power of consumerism for environmental good? 

Green consumption works according to three basic principles. First is incentivizing, rather than regulating, pro-environmental behavior. People do not like being prohibited, but they do like being rewarded for the choices they make. Let’s incentivize pro-environmental choices. Second is leveraging willingness to pay. Sure, many people cannot pay that higher price for organic, free-range, shade-grown, fairly traded this or that. But there is probably someone around who can. Let those consumers signal the industry that there is market support for their pro-environmental investments. Third and finally, green consumption rewards efficiency in production. Consumer choices and the market apparatus that surrounds them can produce better stuff at lower prices with less waste through increased efficiency. Win-win-win! All three of these principles are not exclusively the domain of green consumption, but they are consistent with a neoliberal, or market-based, way of thinking about environment-society relationships.   

Opponents point out that the context in which green consumption takes place is still capitalism — a system inherently unequal and exploitative of the environment as well as society’s most vulnerable. My students are quick to point out that green consumption is prone to “greenwashing:” the exaggeration or false marketing of products that are not really any more environmentally benign than their conventional counterparts. Buyers beware of terms like “all-natural” and “eco-friendly.” There is no system in place to back up the eco-labeling. On the other hand, some eco-labels are governed by elaborate certification schemes. For example, “USDA Organic” is a label with legal teeth provided by the United States federal government.  “Fair Trade” and the “FSC” certification of the Forest Stewardship Council are governed by global networks of non-governmental organizations. Even these eco-labeling schemes, however, are no silver bullet. They can exclude smaller-scale and historically marginalized producers with the costs associated with certification and oversight. 

The long and short is that green consumption may well be part of the solution to our shared environmental crisis, but it cannot save the environment all by itself. None of us alone can green-consume our way to a happier environmental future for all. Go ahead and buy that greener alternative product if you can. But do not feel guilty if you can’t. Remember that there are plenty of other ways to make a difference. Green consumption must be part of a broad-based, multi-pronged initiative that also involves advocacy, political participation, community-building, corporate accountability and a real and durable commitment to equity and social justice.


Jake Brenner (he/him) is a professor in the Department of the Environmental Studies and Sciences. Contact him at jbrenner@ithaca.edu.

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