It was the early 1990s and “green” was going corporate. A book called The Green Consumer Guide had become a bestseller in the UK. I lived in London and my first book had just been published; Americans would turn up now and then to nose around. Debra Lyn Dadd, who wrote about nontoxic living, came to see me. Jeffrey Hollander, who had just founded a company called Seventh Generation, and came to get advice, I guess, though I don’t remember giving him any. He was worried about whether the company could make it at all, and I think of him when I buy my dishwashing liquid today. Here’s an article I wrote for a UK magazine where all my then heroes were published. I sound like the new convert I was then, and remember hearing that some people thought I was too “dark green” while I would get letters from readers who thought I wasn’t green enough. The editor of Resurgence actually held up my book and gave a pitch for it at the annual Schumacher conference in Bristol, and I got to live every author’s dream for a few minutes: being deluged by people buying my book and wanting my signature. See what you think.
Don’t Call Me A Green Consumer
From Resurgence, March/April 1991
The idea that we should buy environment-friendly products only buttresses the ‘born to shop’ mentality. We cannot save the planet by shopping.
Many of us feel uneasy about joining the words ‘green’ and ‘consumer’. John Elkington says that the title of The Green Consumer Guide was intended ironically. This subtlety has been missed by quite a few people, among them Joel Makower, the journalist who prepared the American version, The Green Consumer. Makower writes that “By choosing carefully, you can have a positive [my italics] impact on the environment without significantly compromising your way of life. That’s what being a Green Consumer is all about.”
I am deeply skeptical about green consumerism but unhappy with the usual arguments made against it. For one thing, criticism often sounds like sour grapes, coming from groups or individuals who have not been as successful in getting their messages across as have Elkington and Hailes. The Green Consumer Guide sold 300,000 copies in Britain. It forced many companies to recognize people’s desire for products which “don’t cost the Earth” (it also dramatically increased publishers’ interest in green books).
Anyone who wants to be effective in working for social change has to recognize that green consumerism has had a significant impact on the real world of business, industry, retailing, and advertising, and that this is a good thing. Elkington and Hailes sometimes compromise with big business in a way many of us find unacceptable. But compromise is part of any social process, and we need to discuss and define the line which divides acceptable and unacceptable compromise.
The ecological limits of consumption, green or otherwise, have been aptly pointed out in Sandy Irvine’s discussion paper Beyond Green Consumerism (FoE). He concludes that green consumerism is useful as a campaigning tool but thinks that boycotts are especially important, unlike Elkington and Hailes who see them as ‘negative’. “In parallel with green consumerism,” writes Irvine, “there must…be concerted action to build the political constituencies to implement sustainable policies. Without such political change, green consumerism will merely postpone the day of reckoning.”
I grew up in the era of Ralph Nader and the consumer rights movement, when the word ‘consumer’ had a ring of power to it. But when I went to the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, I found ‘consumer’ defined as “That which consumes, wastes, squan
ders or destroys”. Harsh words, but not a bad definition of what we’ve done with the good things of the Earth. As long as we accept the sobriquet ‘consumer’ as a definition of what we—human beings, citizens, lovers, neighbours, members of a democracy—are, we cannot move towards a society based on sound and sustaining values.
Products, even green products, have come to define who we are. A bottle of Ecover washing-up liquid by the kitchen sink is requisite in middle-class homes now. Fashion is an essential part of the consumption driven economy. Think of the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ lists which get published every new year. I enjoy them, as inscrutable puzzles. Why, I wonder, is Guinness out and shandy in? (Perhaps green will be out in 1991, after its two year run at the top of the charts.)
This cycle of acquisition and replacement is not an accident. In the economic boom years after the Second World War, marketing experts in the US set out to encourage people to buy and throw away—to ‘stimulated consumption’. Marketing consultant Victor Lebow made a plea for ‘forced consumption’ in the Journal of Retailing: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-growing rate.” Citizens acquiesced and became consumers, though it seems unlikely
that anyone has found spiritual satisfaction in gold-plated bathroom taps or disposable razors.
Consumerism, economic growth, and the idea of individual autonomy which have characterized the post-war years, have failed to provide an effective or satisfying communal value system. The social cost of consumerism has been our communities broken up by roads (so we can get places faster), by shopping malls (so we can buy more), and an increasing reliance on mass-produced goods and entertainment (so we don’t need other people).
Crime, violence and child abuse are all part of the crisis we face, and only a fundamental shift in values can change this. Our incessant quest for novelty and new possessions is an expression of emptiness and dissatisfaction in other areas of our lives—a kind of consumer promiscuity.
It is not coincidence that the consumer society rose from the ashes of religious consensus. In the West, Christianity provided most people with practical guidelines for living together, and emphasized non-material values. Today’s search for spirituality, however tentative and prone to crystal-gazing, is a reflection of both individual needs and of our corporate need for shared values.
A philosophy which encourages reduced consumption and a new set of values has been called ‘voluntary simplicity.’ Some environmental groups tell people to ask themselves whether they really need something before they buy. Sandy Irvine writes that “A truly green consumer…[would think] in terms of what is the minimum necessary to satisfy essential human needs.” Freedom is at issue here—what are the limits to personal freedom, and to what extent can or should social or political institutions “act as the custodian of the collective conscience”?
Other stock green phrases are ‘keeping down with the Joneses’ and ‘consume less, not better.’ I’m worried by this approach, because it’s a hard pitch to sell and because it has a grim air to it. Do we need the beauty of a bunch of flowers, the sensual pleasure of a good meal, the solidity of a well-crafted chess board? (On the other hand, I don’t suppose we would argue too much about whether any human being needs thirty pairs of shoes.) While people may take temporary pleasure in tightening their belts, when the crisis is over they tend to want to break loose, drink too much and dance on the tables.
The answer to our social and environmental problems is not to consume better, or even to consume less, if that means a legalistic approach which we cannot, in the long term, live with. Controlling breakneck buying is not going to be easy, but change will come when life is full of other satisfactions. Shopping is what people do to fill empty hours and empty lives. When you are in the throes of a new and delicious love affair you don’t spend your time with mail order catalogues, and when you are passionately involved in your work, or with your children or your garden, shopping malls are not where you want to spend your time.
Consumerism is also the result of our psychological compulsions. Ivan Illich writes that “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” (Tools for Conviviality). Envy is the product of economic disparity and injustice, as well as of a fragmented society where money is the primary way of determining a person’s worth. Reducing global and regional inequities is crucial in reducing environmental degradation.
The problem of addiction is being addressed by socially-aware psychologists and should be recognized by environmentalists. Elkington and Hailes comment blandly in the British Green Consumer Guide that “shopping has become a leisure activity in itself.’ In the US, shopping malls have aerobic workout stations for ‘mall-walkers.’
There are many reasons for consumer addiction. I know a wealthy woman who does nothing but shop, but I know a woman who has four children and little money who shops all the time, at jumble sales, and has a flat packed with clothes and toys. For women at home, shopping is the only domestic chore which puts them in the company of other adults. It is a way of getting out of the house; shops are one of the few public places where women feel they have a right to be and where they feel safe. (Consumer surveys show that women do most of the shopping, and that women with children are the group most concerned about the environment. Green products will, therefore, be aimed at them. But social patterns which encourage women, in particular, to shop need to change. De-industrializing will never work if it means keeping half the human race in the kitchen, responsible for home and hearth, baking bread and making cheese.)
Buying something is a way of exerting influence or power, an important factor in a society where many people, perhaps women more than men, feel powerless and vulnerable. I get angry every time I read the green consumer claim that ‘people’s ordinary spending is the most powerful agent of change they possess’. It may be the easiest, the most immediate, but this idea shows a derisory view of our potential for action, for creativity, for change.
Binge shopping is a recognized psychological disorder in the US, yet every home design book I’ve ever looked at has talked about the importance of having sufficient storage space. No one seems to ask why we all have so much stuff to store. Our lives are, too often, controlled by what we own—watering it, polishing it, insuring it, storing it, moving it. Our plans for the future can be determined by what we want to acquire instead of by what we want to do, or be.
The most apt parallel I’ve been able to think of for compulsive shopping is bulimia. Bulimia is the kissing cousin of the better-publicized eating disorder anorexia nervosa. With anorexia, the victim/patient literally starves herself (victims are almost always women). With bulimia, the ‘binge-purge’ syndrome, she eats enormous quantities of biscuits or chocolate or fish-and-chips, then forces herself to vomit.
This is a psychological distortion of normal appetite. Unbridled consumerism, ‘born to shop’ binge buying, is a similar sickness, which similar causes: low self-esteem, unsatisfactory relationships, a lack of purpose and direction in life. Many of us go out and buy something when we feel low. No doubt you can think of personal examples of the purge stage, too—remember the big after-Christmas clear out last year?
Social insecurity is another reason people become obsessed with buying things. Family and community ties are weak. Many people in Western society have no strong personal ties at all. I have a friend in her forties who is buying as many houses as she can, “to make sure I don’t become a bag lady”; this is a common fear for professional women in America. In other cultures, this panic could not arise because there is a strong sense of social interdependence and care.
The loss of basic survival or subsistence skills breeds another kind of insecurity. Many of us have little real control over our lives and futures—and we know, subconsciously at least, that we are completely dependent on Western industry for both our livelihood and for the things we eat and wear.
Beyond this, the triumph of consumerism in the fifties was probably connected with the threat of nuclear war. In the face of such uncertainty and insecurity about the future, it is easy to understand people’s desire to do everything quickly, to use things up. “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
Uncontrolled buying is also connected with problems of self-esteem. Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept (Penguin), thinks that this is because babies are routinely deprived of the maternal care and close physical contact they need. This feeling of being unloved leaves adults uncertain about their worth and desperately searching for something which will make them feel accepted—money, possessions, sex.
Advertisers exploit the insecurities of the consuming public by telling us that we will be loved if we use the right body spray or drink the right instant coffee. The seductiveness of ‘lifestyle’ advertising lies in its depiction of things we want to be, or ways we want to feel—tying these desires to particular products.
In the end, social change depends on a reassessment of what we value. While green consumerism is not the answer to our problems, it serves a useful function. The real challenge is to find a way of dismantling the consumer society and replacing it with a society rich in satisfactions and pleasures which make shopping and material acquisition pall by comparison. The switch depends on individual lifestyle changes and an increase in creative expression, as well as on a restoration of community bonds and a determination to find ways of demonstrating a way of life which is attractive and exciting…As our values change, our ideas about appropriate consumption will change naturally and painlessly.
Telling people that they will have to consume less is a mistake. We ought to be talking about a more satisfying and sustaining society (in which, as it happens, we will consume less), not one of hardship and deprivation.
To get there, we need to appreciate small beauties in our lives, whether natural or manmade—a well-polished shoe, a graceful bunch of flowers, a neatly laid table—and to be creative in every way we can. Playing the violin, painting pictures, refinishing furniture are ways of establishing different values in our lives, and in the long-term may be as important in creating a sustainable way of life as eating low on the food chain or fitting solar panels.
None of this is as neat as green consumerism, not so easy to package for a political platform. It is fluid and volatile, encompassing our ideas about the role of the arts, the university, intellectual endeavors, and spirituality. I simply want to put the discussion on a different footing, one which is both radical in terms of the change which is needed and realistic in terms of reaching a mainstream audience. In communication, we should look for common values. Everyone (or nearly everyone) has a point at which they think materialism has gone too far. British people, for example, feel uncomfortable about American excesses—complaining about the variety of goods and the enormous portions of food which Americans take for granted. The trick will be to shift the point at which people in Western cultures feel that things have gone too far.
This is our task. Of course we need greener cleaners and sound product labeling schemes. But we cannot save the planet through shopping. By demonstrating that we can find our satisfactions in our work, in physical activity and the natural world, and in loving relationships, by living with vitality and joy and courage without becoming smug or puritanical, we have a good chance of promoting the necessary changes in the values of our society.
Life, like resources, is limited—renewable only in the next generation. We need to think about how we spend the time of our lives. The pressure of imminent disaster clarifies values very quickly. We face unprecedented environmental threats. When the chips are down, what do we really care about? Ask anyone: If you had three days to live, would you spend them shopping?