It's a punch in the gut. After all that research into SLF's in your shampoo and finally finding a raw, organic, free-range milk delivery service in your city (Pride of Cows) - you start your day by reading that none of it is going to make any difference and we will be (are) witness to the end of the world as we know it. This is shocking because we all want to believe that we can do something to help; cling to the hope that not using plastic will do something, anything, to stop the destruction. It's difficult to not be aware of how apocalyptic our world has become. The planet is dying, democracy is failing, and your vote got you a despot you didn't want. You try to vote with your wallet instead, and then find out that nothing really makes any difference at all. It's enough to make a vegan start eating meat again.
So how is this possible?
Let’s start with what a 'green' product is. 'Something that has less of an environmental impact or is less harmful to human health than its traditional product counterpart.'Only 'less than'
. It would get spoilt if it was a 100% green. So, where do you draw the line? Now, you could rely on certifications to help you make a decision, but certification is expensive and most real environmental products don't have the budgets to pay for them because they are too focused on quality and not pleasing certification bodies. Then there's the circus of words like 'bio- natural- ayurvedic- mineral-clay-' thrown around because your scrub has that one natural ingredient in a sea of chemicals.
Mattresses, for example, labeled with 'eco/bio foam' only means that a tiny portion (usually 5-20%) of standard-use polyurethane foam has been replaced with soy or another plant-based material. Your organic (certified) t-shirt might be made of organic cotton but there was probably a highly toxic chemical process involved afterwards. Or maybe your 'natural and organic' soap / moisturiser / conditioner really is fully legit - but is almost definitely made by using palm oil, that (though organic) is responsible for mass destruction of rainforests and human rights violations by corporations that forcefully remove indigenous Peoples from their lands.
THE BIG PROBLEM
Anyway, no product can be a 100% green by virtue of it being mass produced…to be consumed by a large number of people. And so, we come to our real problem - of being The Consumer.
There are now more than 1.7 billion 'consumers' with more than a half in the developing world (world watch, consumerism). But those numbers aren't even telling you the whole picture. Even though the number of Chinese and Indian consumers are far more than those in Europe - the average European consumes substantially more than their counterparts in both countries.
The study, based on which Alden Wicker wrote that article, corroborates. It, shockingly, found that there was no 'difference between intended voluntary green action and environmental effect." They could find no difference in the environmental footprint of a 'green' and 'brown' consumer.
They named this mismatch between buying 'green' stuff and it's (lack of) environmental impact, the BIG problem, a short for Behaviour-Impact-Gap problem.
Thats BIG, alright. The more they're recycling, the more rubbish is being created??
It maybe because they're consuming more. Sure, we recycle and buy organic but the world is going to end and we, the ones with our wooden sunglasses and urban compost pits, are the ones that are going to be the perpetrators. I am talking about our vacations around the world and Apple products made in China, received through America; mineral mining around the world. Even giving away an old dress to make way for something newer is irresponsible - handmade, organic, fairtrade or not. According to Annie Leonard, an expert on overconsumption, only 1% of the materials used to produce our consumer goods are still in use six months after sale. No wonder the retail manufacturing industry is the second most polluting industry on earth.
More and more people are 'voting with their food' - going vegetarian or vegan - but the footprint of the diet changes little if they now eat quinoa from South America instead of local millets.
I'm an organic farmer and even I stopped calling myself an environmentalist. Sure, I compost and know where all my food is grown, but I fly across the world at least once a year, drive a diesel-guzzling car and love a good steak. We can all do our part in sharing what we have and limiting new purchases, but the reality is that we are all still "consumers."
We need to consider what’s driving us to buy this 'stuff': will it really enhance our lives and make us happy, or are we constantly buying only because we “think” we need more? In her article Alden rightly says that there are social impediments to making sustainable decisions. In order to shun consumer culture, we would have to shun society; and it is difficult to break out of the system that we are so deeply rooted in. Working more hours to buy more stuff. It leave us too little time to sit down to a home-cooked meal, to mending our things; or better, to make them ourselves.
It is difficult to stop at 'enough' but I know from experience that consuming less is a far more effective strategy than earning more.
There are other alternatives. Kelly Young, a model and environmentalist, started the "Free, Free Market" revolution in Taiwan, that has since, taken quite a stronghold. It cocks a chin at Capitalism, mass manufacturing and anyone not interested in having fun; all at the same time. You go to a public park at a designated time with things you don't want anymore, or art/music you want feedback on, or a new food experiment you want to try out and just give it away for free. Since being introduced to it, I found a chapter in Bombay and once got a piece of furniture home delivered to me by the owner!
I spoke to Kelly about what she thought of the article by Alden, "Even if you have a product that uses sustainable ingredients for carbon neutral methods of production, you must consider the environmental cost of distributing it worldwide. Then you consider the idea that consumerism is all about manufacturing needs." She isn't done.. "I believe a thriving local economy can be sustainable but just offering a "green" option which invariably costs more and will only appeal to an elite demographic is not going to make a difference when 80% of the world lives in poverty."
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE RICH
With the gap between the rich and poor growing exponentially every year - it is safe to say only a small minority are supporting these businesses. A minority doing the majority of consumption. Want numbers? The 12% of the world population living in North America and Western Europe account for 60% of private consumption while 1/3rd of the ENTIRE world population (mostly in South Asia and Sub-saharan Africa) only account for 3.2%! (Reference)
Lets face it, conscious consumerism is the privilege of the wealthy. But it doesn’t require you to be privileged to take care of your things. If anything, it is being rich that makes us feel justified in over-consuming. And to over consume is to place oneself squarely in the camp that is responsible for systemically destroying our planet. We need to change the lexicon. It is true - there is no such thing as a conscious consumer.
We have to move from conscious consumers to conscious contributors. We need to become conscious carers, conscious electors, savers, sharers, inventors...
France forces its supermarkets to share its food. More and more are quitting the 9-5, and you have no choice but to be politically involved these days. Couples have even decided not to have children because of overpopulation! So maybe that tipping point is coming. Till then, I think it is most important for us to sit down and assess our needs and just stop consuming as much. If you're a foodie - go on a trip during a special season to discover a local delicacy instead of to an over priced restaurant that imports it’s fish from half way across the world. Use your money to buy things that will last forever. Buy less. Buy fair. And buy local. The planet deserves that extra bit right now.