Go to Vogue.com and click on the “Shopping” tab. A quick scroll down the page shows articles titled “The 10 Best Eco-Friendly, Sustainable Brands for Your Baby,” “Go Green for Spring,” and “How Eco-Friendly is Your Closet?” This type of environmental marketing or “eco-consumerism” has become increasingly familiar to the average American as companies have, literally, bought into the growing environmental awareness of consumers. With everything from hybrid cars to “green” household cleaner, individuals are being sent the message that significant environmental issues can be tackled by shopping in the “right” way. But is this true?
Proponents of this trend argue yes, that eco-consumerism has made a flailing environmental movement more mainstream and accessible. By making environmental awareness fashionable, activists are less likely to be dismissed by the public as “tree-huggers” and their messages are less likely to fall on deaf ears. This push to make sustainability trendy through consumerism can be seen in the original copy from MTV’s “Switch” campaign, aimed to promote environmentalism amongst youth: “OK, so we like to consume – that’s fine – Switch isn’t here to tell you to start hugging trees and become an eco-warrior – although it’s fine, if that’s what you’re into. Nah, all we’re here to do is ask you to make little changes to the way you consume.” Buying “green,” was proposed as a way for ordinary people to ease into the movement, theoretically promoting a bottom-up method for change. People make small, easy changes to their lifestyles that begin to add up, building momentum for larger and more transformative changes down the road. This narrative of individual impact is appealing and, therefore, was quickly accepted by consumers. Many environmental activists, however, are beginning to call out the eco-consumer movement as, not only ineffective, but harmful as well.
One of the primary critiques of eco-consumerism is its oxymoronic nature. Among the greatest threats humans pose to the environment is our completely unsustainable level of consumption. Thus, the focus should not be on consuming eco-friendly products, but on simply consuming less. As environmental author Michael Ableman puts it, “The assumption that by buying anything, whether green or not, we’re solving the problem is a misperception.” As environmental awareness becomes more high profile and popular, we have seen it be increasingly co-opted by producers as a marketing strategy. This is problematic because it sends the wrong message to potential consumers. For example, the Vogue article “Go Green for Spring” suggests that by buying from select “eco collections,” you can “start the season with a clear conscience.” Evident in this phrasing is the compelling but dangerously false notion that by consuming more, your responsibility for the planet’s degradation is somehow absolved.
Additionally, the eco-consumer movement may be directing our focus away from the truly transformative remedies that environmental issues require. The reality is that changes in our daily lives have limited impact on the environment as a whole. As the President of Redefining Progress, Michel Gelobter, points out, “…at end of the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and the economy than individual behavior.” Disproportionately putting the responsibility for phenomena like climate change on the individual consumer obscures the very real institutional causes of environmental harm and the larger structural changes that are ultimately needed as a remedy. The eco-consumer movement may over-inflate individuals’ perception of their role in combating environmental issues, making them complacent and less likely to push for the sorts of policy reforms that would yield more powerful solutions.
This is not to say that all eco-friendly products are bad or that individual lifestyle changes are completely meaningless in the struggle against climate change. However, we cannot let ourselves be fooled into thinking that our contribution should end when we purchase energy efficient light bulbs. It should feel odd when Vogue features articles about “green” fashion because we know that fashion, which promotes unnecessary obsolescence, is inherently contradictory to sustainability. As George Black from the Natural Resource Defense Council points out, the original modern environmentalist idea was much less about the individual and the mainstream. It was a countercultural imagining of a different way for the country to function, driven by a “deep unease about what unfettered corporate power was doing to American society…” Ultimately, corporate America’s successful co-optation of the environmental movement through the marketing of eco-consumerism should motivate all of us to think more meaningfully about our activism and prompt us to redirect our efforts towards real structural solutions.