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Shopping our way to sustainability — really?

REUTERS/Petr Josek Snr
One company was offering a free, environmentally friendly iPad case for each cellphone, tablet, MP3 player or other device turned in for buyback and recycling.

What do metal roofing, amaranth and online yoga lessons have in common?

They’re offerings so fabulously eco-friendly, in the eyes of various pitchmen and women, that surely an environment-minded journalist would want to feature them in an Earth Day story.

And so I will, though perhaps not in the hoped-for fashion.

As these emails piled up over the last few weeks, I thought back a year to my conversation with the conservationist writer Scott Russell Sanders. We talked about his notions of voluntary simplicity and his wry suggestion that we might reframe our consumption habits with a slight shift of language:

As a first step in that direction, let us quit using the word “consumer” for a season and use instead the close synonym, “devourer.” Thus, the Office of Consumer Affairs would become the Office of Devourer Affairs. In schools, the study of consumer science, which used to be called home economics, would become devourer science. Savvy shoppers would subscribe to Devourer Reports. Pollsters would conduct devourer surveys. Newspapers would track the ups and downs of the devourer price index.

This April I’m catching up on writings by the environmentalist contrarian David Owen, including his 2011 book “The Conundrum,” subtitled, “How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.”

It’s a provocative book by design — and frequently for effect — and one early passage brought out the highlighter, for it nails our predicament so perfectly.

‘Just tell me what to buy’

Owen recounts a conversation about climate change with a man who suddenly interrupts him to demand, “Just tell me what to buy.”

He was willing to believe the world was in peril, but he wished that someone would cut to the solutions. My car’s a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong television set? I’ll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I’ll replace them with whatever you say.

This is the way most of us think, whether we think we do or not. We’re consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another: just tell me what to buy.

The challenge arises when consumption itself is the issue. How do we truly begin to think about less — less fossil fuel, less carbon, less water, less waste, less habitat destruction, less population stress — when our sense of economic, cultural, and personal well-being is based on more?

The marketers are only too happy to help, as my recent email can document.

I have no wish, in the examples that follow, to embarrass particular pitchfolk by name, or their agencies or clients, because they were all just doing their jobs, I imagine conscientiously, on behalf of products that are not themselves all that egregiously awful.  

And, anyway, the examples that follow are just examples — it’s the pattern they form that’s my point. The offerings:

  • Yesterday a national retailer gave away 1.5 million reusable shopping bags with “sustainable product coupon books that offer over $40 in savings.” (OK, this one was Target, as several million people already know). Added bonus in 250,000 of those bags: free samples of such products as Annie’s Bunny Grahams, method Dish Soap, Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent and Burt’s Bees Moisturizing Cream. What better way to get people to buy more stuff they may not even have known they needed?
  • A BPA-free plastic water bottle complete with high-tech carbon filter (replaceable monthly), neck cord and trigger-operated retractable sipping straw for one-hand operation, as well as a long straw for juice and energy drinks. Tested in falls of up to 6 feet, the bottle sells for $25; filters are three for $10.
  • Sustainable metal roofing, containing a minimum 25 percent recycled material on average, to replace those petroleum-based asphalt shingles  that require periodic replacement and end up in landfills. (Little fact-check here:  They also end up in paving materials and new asphalt shingles, reducing new petroleum consumption somewhat.)
  • A natural-sounding mattress company that pledges to give the Pesticide Action Network $100 — which is not chicken feed — for each new mattress sold this week.
  • A hard-cider company promising to plant a tree and give $1 to the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association for every Facebook “like” or signup for its email newsletter it receives during the week around Earth Day. (This was but one among many tree-planting promotions from companies that couldn’t make eco-minded claims for their actual products.)
  •  A free, environmentally friendly iPad case for each cellphone, tablet, MP3 player or other device turned in for buyback and recycling by a company that reduces the waste stream, and perhaps pangs of conscience, created by our perpetual gizmo upgrades.
  • Bamboo-derived replacements for paper towels that can be washed and reused up to 25 times, and another paper-towel substitute that had no posted limit on reuse and sounded rather like, well, cloth rags.
  • And finally, proving that some dilemmas never go away: Nondisposable fabric diapers and protective mattress pads that won’t end up in landfills. Except that nowadays the focus is not on infants, as it was when Earth Day began, but on adults with incontinence problems.

I guess I’m glad to learn that somebody is extending the fight against disposable dipes into this new arena.

I have nothing but sympathy for the people who need these products — and real admiration for those among them who, in the midst of dealing with this very personal difficulty, will also think conscientiously about sending less junk to the landfill.

We can’t buy our way out

But the rest of the products? Tailor-made, it seems to me, to placate that desperate, impatient, pleading demand: Just tell me what to buy to feel a little less bad about the fix we’re in.

But it’s quite a fix and at some level we all both know and forget that there’s no buying our way out with bamboo wipes and sport bottles.

As I was saying the other day, the widely accepted Ecological Footprint prepared by the Global Footprint Network suggests that we earthlings are consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths nowadays.

That is, it takes the planet 1.6 years to replenish the resources we consume annually. If all the world lived as Americans do, we’d consume four planet equivalents per year.

In 2010, to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the network prepared a 40-year retrospective of consumption trends and impacts over four decades, and it remains an interesting piece of work even without an update.

Global Footprint has also added another eco-minded holiday to the calendar: Earth Overshoot Day, sometimes called Ecological Debt Day, to mark the day in each year since 1987 when worldwide resource consumption exceeded the limit of “one-planet living.” Last year it was Aug. 22.

Yet we continue to speak sustainababble. To believe, apparently, that the solution to unsustainable overconsumption is not less consumption but more consumption, but of a slightly smarter kind.

And, most delusional of all, to hope that our choices not only make our own lifestyles a little greener but benefit the whole wide world — many parts of which would welcome Target’s disposable shopping bags, at least the heavier-duty ones, as reusable totes.

But then “one of our favorite green tricks,” as Owen puts it, “is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/22/2013 - 12:32 pm.

    Affluenza

    …was the title of a book, published a few years ago by a Colorado guy whose name I can’t remember at the moment — one of the annoying side effects of oncoming old age — but that still seems an apt term to describe the syndrome Mr. Meador lays out here.

    I’ve tried to avoid it, though, like most Americans, not entirely successfully.

    Trying to “spend our way to environmental friendliness” is reminiscent of one of Jim Kunstler’s criticisms of the culture, wherein there’s much debate over automobile weights, fuels, numerous methods for improving mileage and safety, all the while continuing to assume that everyone must drive. Small cities, walkable neighborhoods, and public transit would be much better solutions, but we’ve been conditioned to either not think of them at all, or to reject them as “impractical.”

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/22/2013 - 02:03 pm.

    Voluntary reduction ( consumption, population) – or involuntary?

    The uncomfortable reality is that consumption patterns and the population levels that engage in those patterns must BOTH be reduced to reach anything you could reasonably call “sustainable”.

    These two WILL be reduced, ultimately. But will it be voluntary – or involuntary ?

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/22/2013 - 05:00 pm.

    60 years ago, Herbert Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man”

    Observed that our marketing discourse “desublimates” and trivializes our ineffable true needs and urges so that we will seek to meet them thru consumable goods and services. Instead of satisfying a sense of wonder or belonging through meaningful immersion in the world and our relationships, we go pig out at Pizza Hut. My greatest frustration with the feckless climate change “debate” (other than the fact that civilization is plummeting into the chasm as we “debate”) is that the dramatic reduction of economic activity and consumption that would be required to meaningfully mitigate climate change would not mean a painful drop in our quality of life, it would dramatically improve it by forcing us to abandon trivialized surrogate needs and desires forced on us, recapture the time spent in acquiring the means to fulfill those urges thru economic consumption, and reacquaint ourselves with our more genuine ways of relating to and drawing satisfaction from the world.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/23/2013 - 12:06 pm.

    Marketing

    This just demonstrates once again that companies really don’t care about their customers, the environment, or anyone’s well being beyond their own pocketbook. Environmentalism is simply the marketing talking point du jure to get people to buy their product. If taping a purple stick to every toaster, blanket, and cell phone sold more merchandise they would be doing that instead.

    From the consumer side, people just want someone to tell them what to do. They want to rely on experts to think the issue through, find a solution, and implement that solution for them. I see that every day in my IT line of work. Users don’t want me to teach them how to solve a problem or even walk them through it; they want me to come do it for them. Their lives are already full of other problems they’re trying to solve and one more problem to address is just too much to handle. It doesn’t matter if it’s the software they’re using or global warming: their bucket is full.

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