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Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Myth of Green Consumerism

I have a confession to make, well several in fact. I have never in my life bought Ecover washing up liquid or any other Ecover product for that matter. I pay no regard to how many toxic chemicals are in the washing powder I buy or the shampoo I use. I don't make the effort to buy food that has minimum packaging and most of the time I visit a supermarket I don't take a 'bag for life' with me but get new plastic bags in store. 'Green' liberals may already be tutting away reading this and wondering how I could be so irresponsible, sitting here gloating at my thoughtless consumerism. However lets think for a minute about the wider context of 'green consumerism', 'ethical shopping', 'moral purchasing' or whatever you want to call it.
The thinking behind all of this is that individual consumers, by making a 'positive lifestyle choice' and buying the likes of Ecover products over standard washing up products can effect a positive change in society. If enough people make this choice, so the thinking goes, then the market will respond. More Ecover type companies will spring up and the old ones will either have to change their products or decline and go bust. The underlying assumption behind all of this is that the free market knows best and that empowered consumers imposing their moral boycotts and making ethically informed choices can change society. Well this is just plain guff.
For a start, for any real effect to result, a large proportion of consumers would need to switch product, not just a small number of niche greens. This is virtually impossible to achieve once a brand product is already established and a pattern of consumption is established. Yes consumer pressure can work when its something new that is on offer such as GM food and there is massive consumer resistance and suspicion. However once a product is established and people have been buying it for years, then its almost impossible to persuade a large enough chunk of its purchasers to stop or to switch. Obviously I'd rather people did just stop buying the really dangerous and damaging stuff such as garden pesticides and insecticides, however I am realistic enough to know that my efforts to persuade will fall on deaf ears apart from a few green-minded people.
Secondly, the danger with green consumerism is that greens themselves think that they have 'made a difference' by buying their packaging free carrots or ethical chocolate and so that is that. Job done. Feel good about yourself. In fact nothing has been achieved at all as the products which you are boycotting will still sell in droves and most likely be increasing their sales as the economy recovers.
Thirdly, the system itself is designed so that you won't make a difference. Green products are almost always more expensive than the standard ones for example and as a result the majority of cash-strapped purchasers are unlikely to switch in a free market. Also the system panders to our inherent weaknesses and laziness. It offers me new plastic bags whenever I go shopping so that I don't have to bother taking one with me, after all pandering to the lowest common denominator tends to work in maximising profits. It is completely idealistic to expect the majority of the population to operate at all times by the best ethical standards and green concerns. Supporters of the system do not want green consumerism to ever achieve something, it is the last thing they want. They want people to buy masses of pesticides, herbicides, plastic food packaging, products made in sweatshops because it increases profits. If everyone stopped then it might threaten the great god growth. Liberal supporters of the system will of course often fully support green consumerism; this is because as long as it remains a niche market within the system then it is safe. The last thing these people want is for ethical purchasing to actually work and for sections of the economy which are unethical, such as those based on live animal exports or sweatshop labour to collapse.

So if green consumerism is unlikely to stop unethical trade or environmentally damaging retail practices, then what will? Well as I can see the only thing that can work is government intervention or intervention from some other authority such as the institutions of the EU. If you want to stop people buying childrens' toys manufactured in sweatshops then campaign to get the importing of them banned. If you don't like the chemicals in your washing up liquid then campaign to get them banned. If you disagree with live animal exports then protest about it and demand that it be declared illegal. Campaign for supermarkets to be forced to only issue reusable plastic bags and for food companies to have to reduce packaging by law.
Of course the liberals will whine and wail that this is the 'nanny state' interfering with consumer choice. Exactly. It works, which is what the supporters of the system don't want.

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