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Buying Into the Green Movement - New York Times

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  • Pamela Rice
    [EXCERPT: 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2007
      [EXCERPT: "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.]

      [NOTE: Any mention of veg'nism, conspicuously absent.]

      [article follows]

      Original can be found at:

      The New York Times
      July 1, 2007

      Buying Into the Green Movement

      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

      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

      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

      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."

      Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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