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Why shopping 'green' won't save the planet

Seattle's obsession with largely symbolic green measures (banning bottled water at City Hall and taxing plastic bags) and the current trend of marketing everything from hybrids to condos as "green" might actually do more harm than good.

Seattle's obsession with largely symbolic green measures (banning bottled water at City Hall and taxing plastic bags) and the current trend of marketing everything from hybrids to condos as "green" might actually do more harm than good.

That's the warning in a recent commentary by Seattle environmentalists Alex Steffen and Julia Steinberger of Worldchanging.com. Their piece is reprinted in a recent issue of Real Change, but the full version can be found on their World Changing Web site, which promotes sustainability and acts as a clearinghouse of environmental ideas.

Called "The Problem with Big Green," it raises concerns about the greenwashing of consumerism and questions whether encouraging people to take small baby steps in "greening" their buying habits is really productive. They cite a recent study [PDF] by the United Kingdom branch of WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) that suggests it could, in fact, be counterproductive:

Do small steps actually lead anywhere? We all know the theory that small steps lead to bigger steps, which lead in turn to real change. And there are certainly a lot of small steps on offer these days, from the latest home energy tracker to the solar bikini. But it's not at all clear that the ready abundance of small steps is actually making any difference. Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting. ...

We talked with Dr. Tom Crompton, the [WWF] study's author, who shed some interesting light on their conclusion that to create lasting change, groups working for environmental change should be targeting the intrinsic set of values that motivates the public, rather than tantalizing their extrinsic desires.

Social marketers argue that it doesn't matter why people are doing good as long as they're doing good. Crompton's research suggests that the reasons for their actions matter enormously, and in many ways determine how much good they will ultimately do.

The current marketing-based approach is fatally flawed, Crompton says. His work debunks the popularly held "foot-in-the-door" mantra (change your light bulb today, and you'll move to a walkable neighborhood and sell your car before you know it!), with documented psychological research revealing little evidence to support that individuals will continue to move up the sustainability ladder. Instead, actually, "There is some evidence that...individuals rest on their laurels," Crompton says: consumers often make some small steps and stop.

Why do people stop? Sometimes because they think they've done enough. Sometimes because they might not understand that larger changes in behavior and values are necessary to have a real impact. Others might simply experience exhaustion at trying to tailor their lives to an elusive state of sustainable perfection, especially since new "green" products are constantly shifting the definition of perfection.

And in many cases, going green results in more consumption. "Having installed CFL bulbs, a consumer may then plow the money he saves on his power bill into purchasing a new plasma-screen TV, and end up using far more energy that he did in the first place," Steffan and Steinberger write.

According to the WWF report, buying a Toyota Prius might be an incremental improvement, but the act of acquisition itself tends to have an addictive quality. Consumption, even green consumption, tends to breed more consumption — save the planet, be hipper, feel better. Buying more stuff fuels hope — there's an endless supply of correct new products to tap into--yet it gives people a false sense that they can shop their way to a better planet.

And shopping, as we know, is a frequent crutch people use to stave off despair. Taking small baby steps and greening one's consumption gives people the sense that they're doing something to combat scary global trends. But it often misses the point: no consumption or actually focussing on the larger issues could help more.

The report suggests that instead of giving people lists of things they can do, it would be better for environmental organizations to focus on programs that encourage people to think for themselves and reconsider larger values (e.g. more connection with nature) and the context that can lead to more systemic change. "The question is, How do we cut through the chatter to reach people with strong values-based messages?" write Steffen and Steinberger. Simply "greening" the market is not enough, and could make matters worse.


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