Purchasing Green Can Be Good, but Buying Less Is Better

credit: Anne Worner

Many companies offer token green products with the hope that consumers won't see how unsustainable the whole system is to begin with.

Whenever I go visit my grandmother, I am struck by how her belongings never seem to change. The same old sofa, chairs, dishes, towels, potholders, rugs, and lamps are always there. The same books and photo albums decorate her coffee table. She wears the same clothes, the same shoes and winter coat. Her bathroom always smells the same, with the usual bottles of scented lotion and bars of soap stored on the old wooden shelf.

Only a few things change – bouquets of flowers picked from her garden (but always displayed in the same old vase), an array of preserves that she’s just finished making, a quilt top that she’s working on, letters being written to a distant friend.

My grandmother does not buy new things very often. She has exactly what she needs, which means there’s no reason to purchase new. It is profoundly comforting to step into a home that never changes, to feel the familiarity of those old objects that I’ve known since childhood.

There are few homes like hers anymore. We live in an era of such steady consumption that people’s houses are in a constant state of turnover. It’s normal to update, to freshen up, to change colors, style, and furniture based on whims, deals, and the latest fad. We’re a society obsessed with and defined by consumption.

As Bill Bryson said, “We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.”

The idea of ceasing such consumption altogether is highly unpopular – so much so that many companies offer token 'green' products in order to alleviate the shopper's guilt. But in reality, these products are often less than green, despite their appearance. Many are made to be non-toxic or recycled, but are then packaged in ways that are unsustainable; think of packaging that's made from recycled materials but is non-recyclable itself, or those awful corn plastics that are supposed to be compostable but always end up in the trash.

Then there are all the products that are green, but spur people to unnecessary consumption because they look and sound so good from an ethical standpoint. While purchasing green products (organic, non-GMO, plastic-free, non-toxic, recycled, repurposed, etc.) is certainly better than non-green ones when needed, the real problem lies at the root of consumption itself.

“We can’t buy our way to a green planet,” writes author Kendra Pierre-Louis in her excellent book on this very subject, titled “Green Washing.” There’s just no way that consumption, at its current level, can ever be sustainable, no matter how green it claims to be. The whole growth model on which our global economy is built is at odds with our planet’s limitations. If we all stopped shopping superfluously, then yes, the system would collapse, but the system is bound for collapse regardless!

This is not about bashing capitalism, since other economic systems (socialism, communism, etc.) are just as hard on the planet as capitalism. As Pierre-Louis explains, the common focus of those systems is on who owns the means of production, not questioning why we produce in the first place, and yet that is where our discussion must lead.

“By positioning environmental sustainability as a market choice, akin to choosing between a whip and a no-whip latte, we downgrade the urgency of our current ecological situation... We’ve managed to weight the gravity of this cultural and ecological destruction into the same formula as cost, appearance, and durability.”

Pierre-Louis sounds refreshingly like my grandmother. It’s time to challenge the system by ceasing to shop for anything more than the necessities. Buy ethically made, organic clothes when you need them (but honestly, you probably don’t). Drive less or get rid of your car and buy a bike. Buy an old house instead of building new. Keep it small. Eat better and eat less. The fewer things we buy, drive, and build, the less energy (renewable or not) required overall, and the better off we’ll all be.

“Simply put, the scale and pace of our consumption cannot be supported through sustainable methods. To live within our planet’s ecological limits, we are going to have to find a way to consume less, both of sustainable and non-sustainable resources.”

Purchasing green can be good, but buying less is better. Can this become the new norm?