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Buying Into the Lite Green Movement

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  • Teresa Binstock
    July 1, 2007 Buying Into the Green Movement By ALEX WILLIAMS http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/fashion/01green.html HERE’S one popular vision for saving the
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      July 1, 2007

      Buying Into the Green Movement

      By ALEX WILLIAMS
      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/fashion/01green.html


      HERE’S one popular vision for saving the planet: Roll out from under the
      sumptuous hemp-fiber sheets on your bed in the morning and pull on a pair
      of $245 organic cotton Levi’s and an Armani biodegradable knit shirt.

      Stroll from the bedroom in your eco-McMansion, with its photovoltaic solar
      panels, into the kitchen remodeled with reclaimed lumber. Enter the
      three-car garage lighted by energy-sipping fluorescent bulbs and slip
      behind the wheel of your $104,000 Lexus hybrid.

      Drive to the airport, where you settle in for an 8,000-mile flight—
      careful to buy carbon offsets beforehand — and spend a week driving golf
      balls made from compacted fish food at an eco-resort in the Maldives.

      That vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to
      buy appeals to millions of consumers and arguably defines the current
      environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making
      a stylish statement.

      Some 35 million Americans regularly buy products that claim to be
      earth-friendly, according to one report, everything from organic beeswax
      lipstick from the west Zambian rain forest to Toyota Priuses. With baby
      steps, more and more shoppers browse among the 60,000 products available
      under Home Depot’s new Eco Options program.

      Such choices are rendered fashionable as celebrities worried about global
      warming appear on the cover of Vanity Fair’s “green issue,” and pop stars
      like Kelly Clarkson and Lenny Kravitz prepare to be headline acts on July
      7 at the Live Earth concerts at sites around the world.

      Consumers have embraced living green, and for the most part the mainstream
      green movement has embraced green consumerism. But even at this moment of
      high visibility and impact for environmental activists, a splinter wing of
      the movement has begun to critique what it sometimes calls “light greens.”

      Critics question the notion that we can avert global warming by buying
      so-called earth-friendly products, from clothing and cars to homes and
      vacations, when the cumulative effect of our consumption remains enormous
      and hazardous.

      “There is a very common mind-set right now which holds that all that we’re
      going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon
      us is make slightly different shopping decisions,” said Alex Steffen, the
      executive editor of Worldchanging.com, a Web site devoted to
      sustainability issues.

      The genuine solution, he and other critics say, is to significantly reduce
      one’s consumption of goods and resources. It’s not enough to build a
      vacation home of recycled lumber; the real way to reduce one’s carbon
      footprint is to only own one home.

      Buying a hybrid car won’t help if it’s the aforementioned Lexus, the
      luxury LS 600h L model, which gets 22 miles to the gallon on the highway;
      the Toyota Yaris ($11,000) gets 40 highway miles a gallon with a standard
      gasoline engine.

      It’s as though the millions of people whom environmentalists have
      successfully prodded to be concerned about climate change are experiencing
      a SnackWell’s moment: confronted with a box of fat-free devil’s food
      chocolate cookies, which seem deliciously guilt-free, they consume the
      entire box, avoiding any fats but loading up on calories.

      The issue of green shopping is highlighting a division in the
      environmental movement: “the old-school environmentalism of
      self-abnegation versus this camp of buying your way into heaven,” said
      Chip Giller, the founder of Grist.org, an online environmental blog that
      claims a monthly readership of 800,000. “Over even the last couple of
      months, there is more concern growing within the traditional camp about
      the Cosmo-izing of the green movement — ‘55 great ways to look eco-sexy,’
      ” he said. “Among traditional greens, there is concern that too much of
      the population thinks there’s an easy way out.”

      The criticisms have appeared quietly in some environmental publications
      and on the Web.

      GEORGE BLACK, an editor and a columnist at OnEarth, a quarterly journal of
      the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently summed up the explosion of
      high-style green consumer items and articles of the sort that proclaim
      “green is the new black,” that is, a fashion trend, as “eco-narcissism.”

      Paul Hawken, an author and longtime environmental activist, said the
      current boom in earth-friendly products offers a false promise. “Green
      consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase,” he said. He blamed the news media
      and marketers for turning environmentalism into fashion and distracting
      from serious issues.

      “We turn toward the consumption part because that’s where the money is,”
      Mr. Hawken said. “We tend not to look at the ‘less’ part. So you get these
      anomalies like 10,000-foot ‘green’ homes being built by a hedge fund
      manager in Aspen. Or ‘green’ fashion shows. Fashion is the deliberate
      inculcation of obsolescence.”

      He added: “The fruit at Whole Foods in winter, flown in from Chile on a
      747 — it’s a complete joke. The idea that we should have raspberries in
      January, it doesn’t matter if they’re organic. It’s diabolically stupid.”

      Environmentalists say some products marketed as green may pump more carbon
      into the atmosphere than choosing something more modest, or simply nothing
      at all. Along those lines, a company called PlayEngine sells a 19-inch
      widescreen L.C.D. set whose “sustainable bamboo” case is represented as an
      earth-friendly alternative to plastic.

      But it may be better to keep your old cathode-tube set instead, according
      to “The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook,” because older sets
      use less power than plasma or L.C.D. screens. (Televisions account for
      about 4 percent of energy consumption in the United States, the handbook
      says.)

      “The assumption that by buying anything, whether green or not, we’re
      solving the problem is a misperception,” said Michael Ableman, an
      environmental author and long-time organic farmer. “Consuming is a
      significant part of the problem to begin with. Maybe the solution is
      instead of buying five pairs of organic cotton jeans, buy one pair of
      regular jeans instead.”

      For the most part, the critiques of green consumption have come from
      individual activists, not from mainstream environmental groups like the
      Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. The latest
      issue of Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, has articles hailing an
      “ecofriendly mall” featuring sustainable clothing (under development in
      Chicago) and credit cards that rack up carbon offsets for every purchase,
      as well as sustainably-harvested caviar and the celebrity-friendly Tango
      electric sports car (a top-of-the-line model is $108,000).

      One reason mainstream groups may be wary of criticizing Americans’
      consumption is that before the latest era of green chic, these large
      organizations endured years in which their warnings about climate change
      were scarcely heard.

      Much of the public had turned away from the Carter-era environmental
      message of sacrifice, which included turning down the thermostat, driving
      smaller cars and carrying a cloth “Save-a-Tree” tote to the supermarket.

      Now that environmentalism is high profile, thanks in part to the success
      of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary featuring Al Gore,
      mainstream greens, for the most part, say that buying products promoted as
      eco-friendly is a good first step.

      “After you buy the compact fluorescent bulbs,” said Michael Brune, the
      executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, “you can move on to
      greater goals like banding together politically to shut down coal-fired
      power plants.”

      John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, argued that
      green consumerism has been a way for Wal-Mart shoppers to get over the old
      stereotypes of environmentalists as “tree-hugging hippies” and contribute
      in their own way.

      This is crucial, he said, given the widespread nature of the global
      warming challenge. “You need Wal-Mart and Joe Six-Pack and mayors and taxi
      drivers," he said. “You need participation on a wide front.”

      It is not just ecology activists with one foot in the 1970s, though, who
      have taken issue with the consumerist personality of the “light green”
      movement. Anti-consumerist fervor burns hotly among some activists who
      came of age under the influence of noisy, disruptive anti-globalization
      protests.

      Last year, a San Francisco group called the Compact made headlines with a
      vow to live the entire year without buying anything but bare essentials
      like medicine and food. A year in, the original 10 “mostly” made it, said
      Rachel Kesel, 26, a founder. The movement claims some 8,300 adherents
      throughout the country and in places as distant as Singapore and Iceland.

      “The more that I’m engaged in this, the more annoyed I get with things
      like ‘shop against climate change’ and these kind of attitudes,” said Ms.
      Kesel, who continues her shopping strike and counts a new pair of running
      shoes — she’s a dog-walker by trade — as among her limited purchases in 18
      months.

      “It’s hysterical,” she said. “You’re telling people to consume more in
      order to reduce impact.”

      For some, the very debate over how much difference they should try to make
      in their own lives is a distraction. They despair of individual consumers
      being responsible for saving the earth from climate change and want to see
      action from political leaders around the world.

      INDIVIDUAL consumers may choose more fuel-efficient cars, but a far
      greater effect may be felt when fuel-efficiency standards are raised for
      all of the industry , as the Senate voted to do on June 21, the first
      significant rise in mileage standards in more than two decades.

      “A legitimate beef that people have with green consumerism is, at end of
      the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and
      the economy than individual behavior,” said Michel Gelobter, a former
      professor of environmental policy at Rutgers who is now president of
      Redefining Progress, a nonprofit policy group that promotes sustainable
      living.

      “A lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to do with what you put in your
      shopping basket,” he said. “It has to do with mass transit, housing
      density. It has to do with the war and subsidies for the coal and fossil
      fuel industry.”

      In fact, those light-green environmentalists who chose not to lecture
      about sacrifice and promote the trendiness of eco-sensitive products may
      be on to something.

      Michael Shellenberger, a partner at American Environics, a market research
      firm in Oakland, Calif., said that his company ran a series of focus
      groups in April for the environmental group Earthjustice, and was
      surprised by the results.

      People considered their trip down the Eco Options aisles at Home Depot a
      beginning, not an end point.

      “We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass,
      so to speak,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “They knew what they were doing
      wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things
      won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see
      it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these
      green practices were actually becoming more committed to more
      transformative political action on global warming.”

      *

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