E.7 Can green consumerism stop the ecological crisis?

No. In fact, it could make it worse by creating new markets and thus increasing growth. However, just so there is no misunderstanding: we fully recognise that using recycled or renewable raw materials, reducing consumption and buying "ecologically friendly" products and technologies are very important, and we would be the last to denounce such a thing. But such measures are of very limited use as solutions to the ecological problems we face. At best they can only delay, not prevent, capitalism's ultimate destruction of the planet's ecological base.

Green consumerism is the only thing the establishment has to offer in the face of mounting ecological destruction. Usually it boils down to nothing more than slick advertising campaigns by big corporate polluters to hype band-aid measures such as using a few recycled materials or contributing money to a wildlife fund, which are showcased as "concern for the environment" while off camera the pollution and devouring of non-renewable resources goes on. They also engage in "greenwashing", in which companies lavishly fund PR campaigns to paint themselves "green" without altering their current polluting practices!

This means that apparently "green" companies and products actually are not. Many firms hire expensive Public Relations firms and produce advertisements to paint a false image of themselves as being ecologically friendly (i.e. perform "greenwashing"). This indicates a weakness of market economies -- they hinder (even distort) the flow of information required for consumers to make informed decisions. The market does not provide enough information for consumers to determine whether a product is actually green or not -- it just gives them a price and advertising. Consumers have to rely on other sources, many of which are minority journals and organisations and so difficult to find, to provide them with the accurate information required to countermand the power and persuasion of advertising and the work of PR experts (see the chapter on greenwashing called "Silencing Spring" in John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's Toxic Sludge is Good for You! for a good summary of the use of PR firms).

Even apparently ecologically friendly firms like "The Body Shop" can present a false image of what they do. For example, journalist Jon Entine investigated that company in 1994 and discovered that only a minuscule fraction of its ingredients came from Trade Not Aid (a program claimed to aid developing countries). Entine also discovered that the company also used many outdated, off-the-shelf product formulas filled with non-renewable petrochemicals as well as animal tested ingredients. When he contacted the company he received libel threats and it hired a PR company to combat Entine's story. [John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You!, pp. 74-5] This highlights the dangers of looking to consumerism to solve ecological problems. As Entine argues:

"The Body Shop is a corporation with the privileges and power in society as all others. Like other corporations it makes products that are unsustainable, encourages consumerism, uses non-renewable materials, hires giant PR and law firms, and exaggerates its environment policies. If we are to become a sustainable society, it is crucial that we have institutions . . . that are truly sustainable. The Body Shop has deceived the public by trying to make us think that they are a lot further down the road to sustainability than they really are. We should . . . no longer . . . lionise the Body Shop and others who claim to be something they are not." [quoted by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You!, p. 76]

Thus green consumerism is hindered by the nature of the market -- how the market reduces everything to price and so hides the information required to make truly informed decisions on what to consume. Moreover, it is capable of being used to further ecological damage by the use of PR to paint a false picture of the companies and their environmental activities. Even assuming companies are honest and do minimise their environmental damage they cannot face the fundamental cause of the ecological crisis in the "grow-or-die" principle of capitalism ("green" firms need to make profits, accumulate capital and grow bigger), nor do they address the pernicious role of advertising or the lack of public control over production and investment under capitalism. Hence it is a totally inadequate solution.

Andrew Watson sums up green consumerism very eloquently as follows:

"green consumerism, which is largely a cynical attempt to maintain profit margins, does not challenge capital's eco-cidal accumulation, but actually facilitates it by opening a new market. All products, no matter how 'green', cause some pollution, use some resources and energy, and cause some ecological disturbance. This would not matter in a society in which production was rationally planned, but in an exponentially expanding economy, production, however 'green', would eventually destroy the Earth's environment. Ozone-friendly aerosols, for example, still use other harmful chemicals; create pollution in their manufacture, use and disposal; and use large amounts of resources and energy. Of course, up to now, the green pretensions of most companies have been exposed largely as presenting an acceptably green image, with little or no substance. The market is presented as the saviour of the environment. Environmental concern is commodified and transformed into ideological support for capitalism. Instead of raising awareness of the causes of the ecological crisis, green consumerism mystifies them. The solution is presented as an individual act rather than as the collective action of individuals struggling for social change. The corporations laugh all the way to the bank" [From Red to Green, pp. 9-10]

Green consumerism, by its very nature, cannot challenge the "grow-or-die" nature of capitalism. Even "green" companies must make a profit, and hence must expand in order to survive. "Ethical" consumerism, like "ethical" investment, is still based on profit making, the extraction of surplus value from others. This is hardly "ethical," as it cannot challenge the inequality in exchange that lies at the heart of capitalism nor the authoritarian social relationships it creates.

In addition, since capitalism is a world system, companies can produce and sell their non-green and dangerous goods elsewhere. Many of the products and practices banned or boycotted in developed countries are sold and used in developing ones. For example, Agent Orange (used as to defoliate forests during the Vietnam War by the US) is used as an herbicide in the Third World, as is DDT. Agent Orange contains one of the most toxic compounds known to humanity and was responsible for thousands of deformed children in Vietnam. Ciba-Geigy continued to sell Enterovioform (a drug which caused blindness and paralysis in at least 10,000 Japanese users of it) in those countries that permitted it to do so. Ciba-Geigy, by the way, also sprayed a pesticide called Galecron on unprotected Egyptian children to test its safety. The company later claimed it deeply regretted using the children as "volunteers." Many companies have moved to developing countries to escape the stricter pollution and labour laws in the developed countries.

Neither does green consumerism question why it should be the ruling elites within capitalism that decide what to produce and how to produce it. Since these elites are driven by profit considerations, if it is profitable to pollute, pollution will occur. Moreover, green consumerism does not challenge the (essential) capitalist principle of consumption for the sake of consumption, nor can it come to terms with the fact that "demand" is created, to a large degree, by "suppliers," specifically by advertising agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public tastes, as well as using their financial clout to ensure that "negative" (i.e. truthful) stories about companies' environmental records do not surface in the mainstream media.

Because ethical consumerism is based wholly on market solutions to the ecological crisis, it is incapable even of recognising the root cause of that crisis, namely the atomising nature of market society and the social relationships it creates. Atomised individuals ("soloists") cannot change the world, and "voting" on the market hardly reduces their atomisation. As Murray Bookchin argues, "[t]ragically, these millions [of 'soloists'] have surrendered their social power, indeed, their very personalities, to politicians and bureaucrats who live in a nexus of obedience and command in which they are normally expected to play subordinate roles. Yet this is precisely the immediate cause of the ecological crisis of our time -- a cause that has its historic roots in the market society that engulfs us." [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 81]

Until market society is dismantled, solutions like ethical consumerism will be about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. Such solutions are doomed to failure because they promote individual responses to social problems, problems that by their very nature require collective action, and deal only with the symptoms, rather than focusing on the cause of the problem in the first place.