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8 September 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Being seen to be green
Ethical consumerism is more a personal statement than a bid to save the planet.

by Rob Lyons

The notion of the 'ethical consumer' suggests that by changing our purchasing habits, we can effect wider change. But is buying green really about saving the planet and our own health - or just about our personal self-image?

Research undertaken for the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's suggests that more younger people - and younger women in particular - are buying organic. However, these purchases often had little to do with saving the planet. As a Sainsbury's press release reported: '[T]he core reasons to buy organic food are personal - people believe it tastes better and is better for you. Over three quarters of the participants claimed that eating organic food made them feel good in themselves and evoked a sense of optimism because the food was seen as healthier.' (1)

There's little real evidence that organic food is any healthier than the non-organic variety. That 'feelgood factor' has as much to do with the statement people are making by buying organic. People just seem to know that organic is better, even if they are unlikely to be able to justify why.

The act of buying organic is far more important than the act of consuming organic because it makes a statement about your awareness of the world around you - and you expect to feel the warmth of other people's approval in return.

Sticking a bunch of organic bananas in your shopping trolley is not the only means by which you can seek such approval. The same thing can be seen in the market for the new range of fuel-efficient hybrid cars - cars that use electric motors in addition to petrol engines to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions - in particular, the Toyota Prius. Fans of the Prius include Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, while the brains behind Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have used their Prius purchases to deflect any suggestion that they are becoming fat cats.

A recent article in the Washington Post noted that sales of Honda's Civic hybrid have been much weaker than for the Prius, even though the Civic's technology is similar and it is almost as fuel-efficient as the Prius. What's the difference? 'The Prius is a fashion statement', said Art Spinella, a consultant with CNW Marketing Research, who surveys car-buying trends. 'It looks different. Other people know the driver is driving a hybrid vehicle. It clearly makes a bigger statement about the person than does the Civic, which basically looks like a Civic.' (2)

The recycling box outside your house is a symbol of virtue
Spinella added that hybrid buyers in focus groups gravitate to the Prius 'because of its unique design and will candidly admit they expect to receive some acclaim from friends, relatives, co-workers for their concern about the environment and/or fuel efficiency' (3). Green is the new black, it seems.

Being 'ethical' or 'aware' is now part of the zeitgeist. It is both a fashion statement (look at me, I'm ethical) and a moral statement (if you're not ethical like me, you're a lout).

This is also the way with recycling. There is little financial incentive for recycling, and recycling is generally, with a few exceptions, more expensive than dumping and making new goods from virgin materials. Yet there is a growing campaign for recycling, particularly promoted by local government - and more people are taking it up. The 'black box' outside your house is becoming a symbol of virtue, to reassure yourself that you are doing your bit.

This is a degraded form of action, which doesn't involve seeking large-scale political or legal change. Instead, the point is to do our little bit, and especially to be seen to be doing our bit.

Environmentalism has flowed into the gap left by both political ideologies and religion. Green consumerism doesn't require you to have a sophisticated worldview, or to win other people over to your ideas. Now buying organic, driving fuel-efficient and recycling are all part and parcel of being 'holier-than-thou'.

Read on:

Recycling religion, by Rob Lyons

A waste of time, by Rob Lyons

Organic food: why?, by Jan Bowman

(1) Sainsbury's press release

(2) Toyota's Prius Proving to Be the Hotter Ride in Hybrids, Washington Post, 22 August 2004

(3) Toyota's Prius Proving to Be the Hotter Ride in Hybrids, Washington Post, 22 August 2004

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