The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 20, 2010

Earth Day 2010 – Buying Green vs. Being Green

Right now, my e-mail inbox is bursting with Earth Day PR pitches.  “Please tell your readers to buy a T-shirt made from recycled plastic bottles, a recycled toothbrush, compostable cups and biodegradable plates, organic “me-shirts,” bioplastic iPhone case and baby wipes, reusable containers and utensils, green tips from L’Oréal, organic cotton sheets, Sunchips in biodegradable bags, green cleaning products, eco-friendly jewelry, organic underwear, organic salad greens, or an American flag made from recycled plastic…”

Earth Day email inbox

Let’s buy, buy, buy our way to a clean and green tomorrow.

Okay.  I know what you’re thinking.  “Beth, why the sarcastic tone?  You’ve promoted green products on Fake Plastic Fish since Day 1.  Why, just last week, you hosted giveaways of not one but two products.”  And you’re absolutely right.  Putting all sarcasm aside, I must concede that several of the PR pitches in my inbox are from companies I believe in and have promoted on Fake Plastic Fish. I certainly support plastic-free products when I feel they are healthier than the alternative and can help us reduce our plastic consumption.  And I want to support small companies whose offerings can help us reduce waste, avoid toxic chemicals, and lower our ecological footprint.

But do I think that merely switching from plastic to a different material without lowering our overall consumption is going to protect the planet for future generations? I do not.

Green Gone WrongAnd neither does Heather Rogers, author of the brand new book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution.

Having spent years traveling the world to examine the green initiatives and products touted as organic, eco-friendly, Fair Trade, low carbon, etc., Rogers reveals that many of the green alternatives we choose are anything but.  And the reason has to do with a capitalist system that values monetary profits over true planetary and social justice.

In studying our food systems, Rogers’ investigations into organic local farming in New York state reveal that many of the small farmers who show up at the farmers market each week with food priced well above conventionally farmed products are barely making a living, and many face foreclosure due to an infrastructure and government policy that supports big industrial agriculture over small farms. Traveling to Paraguay, she discovers that big organic companies like Wholesome Sweeteners, suppliers of organic and Fair Trade sugar products, is clear cutting the native forests and degrading the land for sugar plantations.  (I wish I had read this chapter before I wrote my post about Fair Trade organic sugar last week.)  How organic is that?

In Indonesian Borneo, Rogers witnesses rainforests cleared and burned to make way for palm oil, the crop increasingly used to produce biofuels, the “green” alternative to fossil fuels.  In fact, she learns that when we factor in the loss of carbon-sequestering trees and the burning process itself, palm oil biofuel actually generates 10 times more CO2 emissions than petroleum.  Looking to fuel efficiency as a step in the right direction, Rogers visits the three major auto companies in Detroit and discovers that while these companies have already developed the technology for incredibly fuel-efficient cars, they have stalled on manufacturing them for sale in the U.S., where the profit margins are much lower than are those of big gas guzzlers.

Investigating the truth about Carbon credits, particularly the voluntary credits we as consumers can purchase to offset our emissions from flying, driving, or basic living, Rogers comes to see that rather than actually offsetting the emissions we are generating now, credits used for tree planting programs actually only neutralize greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of the trees.  Those kinds of programs do not help with CO2 emissions now when we need them most.  What’s more, some carbon credit programs, contrary to their mission, actually incentivize the use of fossil fuels in developing nations since the money from carbon credits is not provided to countries that already have clean energy.   And because there is no official registry or auditing of these programs, consumers have no way to find out what’s really being done with the money they spend to assuage their guilt.

Natural Capitalism?

Natural capitalism, as promoted by thinkers like Paul Hawken and William McDonough, asserts that “we can use the levers of the market to fix ecological breakdown.”  Advocates cite companies like Xerox that have saved money by cutting their consumption of energy and resources.  But Rogers counters their arguments by following this train of thought further.  She asks, “What do the companies do with this cost savings?” Most big companies, like the Wal-Marts of the world, will simply reinvest in expansion and growth, making more product to sell and opening more stores.  The energy savings per unit is canceled out by the increased number of units manufactured.

Only when we rethink how and what we value — so that we no longer base well-being and quality of life on excess production, consumption, and wasting — will we truly be able to address global warming and other forms of ecological ruin.

What’s the Solution?

To Rogers, the free market is not going to get us out of our predicament.  We must cut our consumption.  And we’re going to need regulations to reign in a market based solely on monetary profit, adjusting our values to consider the full impact of the things we consume rather than simply the ticket price.  For example, instead of a Farm Bill that continues to give big subsidies to industrial agriculture, we need a large portion of those funds allocated to provide distribution systems, loans, education, and other kinds of support for small organic farmers so that they can make a living wage.

So why doesn’t our government support small farms, fuel-efficient vehicles, mass transit and bike-friendly roads, or energy efficient housing?  Rogers contends that

Part of what is holding us back is a lack of political will.  When that expression is used, it often evokes leaders who don’t have the guts to stand up to the moneyed interests they rely on to get elected.  However true this may be, political will comes not just from leaders.  It also originates with a public that has the determination to push for fundamental transformation that can lead to real solutions.  A crucial step in getting there is informing ourselves about what options exist.  Industries such as oil, coal, automotive, agribusiness, and manufacturing and their friends in government have a lot to lose if things change too much.  So, directly and indirectly, these powerful interests marginalize and muffle genuinely greener efforts.  Perhaps practicing environmental responsibility means granting ourselves the time to find out who’s doing what the help the planet, and, if we want, to participate, or study up on it, or create something of our own.

It means that to create the kind of world we want, we have to do more than simply buy products that are touted as green. How do we know if they truly are?  How do we learn the real story behind the marketing pitch?

Personally, I’m a skeptic.  When I get a marketing pitch for this blog, I generally have more questions than the PR rep can readily answer.  I want to know exactly what ingredients are in the product.  What tests have been done.  What chemicals have been added to the supposedly compostable packaging and whether it really does compost as they claim it does.  If a product is touted as recyclable, I want to know how the company intends to take it back and recycle it, rather than leaving it up to my community’s over-burdened recycling system.  And I want to know why we need to buy such a product in the first place.  Is there a way to get the same benefit without continuing to extract resources?  Can we rent or borrow instead?  Can we buy it used instead of new?

What we don’t buy or consume is probably more important than what we do.

As far as advocating for change on the governmental level, we don’t all have time to study up on every piece of environmental legislation in our local, state, and national government, but we can make a point of attending a city council meeting several times a year, speaking to our neighbors about issues that affect our communities, and investigating a few of the issues that we are particularly concerned about.  Those of us with more time can join a campaign or start one ourselves.  And we can reach outside our comfort zones once in a while to ask businesses and store owners for what we want instead of simply settling for the lesser of evils on the existing menu.

Honestly? While I am not a judgmental person, I do sometimes get weary of hearing, “We don’t have that where I live.  I can’t do XY or Z because my community or local stores don’t offer that.”  My answer: So ask for it.  Ask for it, ask for it, ask for it.  Get your friends to ask for it.  Make phone calls.  Get your friends to make phone calls.  Write letters.  Get your friends to write letters.  Put up a web site.  Create a petition.  In the end, you might not get what you want.  But you probably never will if you don’t ask.  By the way, there’s a great conversation happening on the Fake Plastic Fish discussion board about letters folks are writing to stores to ask for what they want.

What are some of your pet issues?  And what can you do, not only on Earth Day, but in the coming year to vote not only with your wallet but with your mouth and feet and pen and ballot?

And now, after all this heavy stuff, I’ll leave you with this catchy tune.  Instead of buying green, just use less.

(Thanks to BlogHer CE Siel Ju from Green LA Girl for giving me the catchy title for this post.)

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11 years ago

Right on, Beth. Though this post is older, I am only now reading it having discovered your site just today. Your voice and that of people like Heather Rogers rise clearly amongst a din of others whose intentions, though well-intentioned, are often misguided. And I think that is theactual issue in truly doing good for the environment, What’s real and what’s for sale? (with apologies to Stone Temple Pilots!) Ifwe can not see beyond empty marketing and mindless PR spin, then all the good intentions in the world still do nothing more than make us feel better about ourselves–‘assuage our guilt’ as another commenter puts it. Simply put, we can’t buy ourselves green. A lot has been written about this. And better minds than mine have said better things regarding the same. And certainly there are many things to be said about it. Which leads me to the real reason I chose to comment today. What all of this reminds me of is this: what is old is new. What is called environmental consciousness and what PR firms and marketers latch on to used to be called something else. It was called being thrifty. My grandparents knew this. My father’s father in particular knew it well. Everything–wire, nails, string, rope, paper, lumber, window glass, moulding–everything ad infinitum could be re-used, retooled, or repurposed. It was a lesson that I learned at an early age. And though it doesn’t solve all the problems, it goes a long way in the right direction. I think this is part of what you and others are suggesting in your site and in articles like this one. And for that I say again: right on, Beth! Thank you.

13 years ago

Well said.

I don’t like the environmental-friendliness being portrayed as a business opportunity, instead it should be a business requirement. Product certifications, or eco-labels can only take it so far, it’s not about having the top 10% be great products, the end goal is to have only good products on the shelf.

Tan @ Trying to be a Granola Mom in a Fast-Food World
13 years ago

I am a couple day late reading this but, I really have this same rant in my head whenever I need to make a purchase. It is all about more, more, more and so many of the “green” claims are simple greenwashing…thanks for putting more polite words to it than I do in my head! I have been a fan of buying used and reusing ever since it was all I could afford – now it just makes sense.

13 years ago

Love the video! :) Ok, off to bed. Have to save some energy. :)

13 years ago

I think the point of the industry blog post was to point out that we can’t paint all that is plastic with a broad black brush. They probably feel most people aren’t aware of environmental progress that plastic actually make possible. And that the is moving — however slowly and perhaps for business reasons — in a direction readers of this blog might appreciate (even if just a little bit!)

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Hi, Bart. Thanks for the link to the plastics industry web site. I left a comment. It’s not appearing there yet, so I will copy it here:

“Interesting article. While I sincerely appreciate that plastics have made many of our advanced technologies possible, I cannot fail to notice that the article omits some of the most troubling forms of plastic — those which are opposed by me and members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition: Single Use Disposable Plastics as well as plastics used to contain food and beverages.

“Single use disposables are the biggest form of litter polluting the planet and are almost completely unnecessary. Bringing our own reusable bags, bottles, and containers with us helps cut this unnecessary source of pollution, as do bans and fees on disposable bags and other containers.

“Plastic food containers, whether disposable or durable, can be hazardous to our health. We all know that plastics can leach the chemicals added to them, especially when subject to heat and rough handling. But how many of us actually know what those chemicals are? Phthalates, BPA, lead, antimicrobials are just some of the chemicals that can leach from certain plastics. But as you know, there are a whole host of chemicals added to affect plastic’s qualities, and manufacturers are not required to disclose any of them.

“U.S. law requires labeling of all ingredients on food products. Unfortunately, the chemicals that can leach from the plastic containers are not included in those ingredient lists. So how can consumers truly make informed decisions? Are your members willing to disclose the “recipes” for their products, or will they forever hide behind claims of proprietary information?

“It’s fine to be proud of your contributions to sustainability, but how about also addressing the ways in which plastics play a part in polluting the planet?

Beth Terry

13 years ago

Earth Day and plastics – – some food for thought here, I must admit.

Sense of Home
13 years ago

I have been thinking about this for some time. It is disappointing to see the concern for the environment turn into consumerism. People feel good because what they are buying says it is “green”, but really it is just more stuff, and it takes resources to make that stuff and ship that stuff. Soon people will grow tired of buying “green” and go back to the usual, because it didn’t really make a difference anyway. Failing to see the real problem.

13 years ago

Thanks for such a well thought out and well written rant!!!! Perfect reminder to us all!!! I always tell people that REDUCE is the most important of the green Rs. I even have issue sometimes with promoting my own little Etsy shop. Even though it’s aim is to reduce waste and I strive to reclaim materials for it…I’m still promoting consumerism. It’s a fine line to walk. I’m personally staying away from all of the promotional stuff this week. For real, I don’t need another reusable grocery bag. Thanks again for writing this article!

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Sorry, Martha. I should have posted the link:

Martha Radatz
13 years ago

Where can I find this vireo clip on line? I checked You Tube and no luck. Thanks.

Pure Mothers
13 years ago

What a great rant Beth! It’s important to vote with our dollars, but I get so discouraged about green progress when I read: buy, buy, buy all the time. So, thanks for this. I will look for Rogers’ book. I wonder if it is available in the uK yet?

13 years ago

i will not go on too much since many have covered it, but i just wanted to say thanks for what you do and for being a sane voice in an insane world. this post on consumption (specifically how we need much less of it) may be my favorite yet! despite being considered pretty crunchy granola already, you’ve given me a lot to think about in a short amount of time, and i’ve already made quite a few new changes. you are making a difference, and you are appreciated. =)

13 years ago

Seriously, if I see or hear one more advertisement that promotes a product with a “Benefits the Earth”, “Helps save the Earth”, “Environmentally Preferred”, etc…

I can’t think of one product I’ve heard advertised in that way that “helps” the earth. Call it what it is – “less harmful than that other thing you were going to buy that you probably don’t really need.” Nothing wrong with that – but let’s at least be honest.


Lara S.
13 years ago

What an amazing post. Every time I read your blog I feel inspired, kind of embraced by the green movement, in this case represented by you and of course the people that comments (I also read all the comments).

The problem of consumerism is one that is REALLY freaking me out more and more every day, because I realize more and more that humans have built our civilization on the base of it! And every concept of development, growth and improving the quality of people’s lives is instantly connected to consuming. The thing is, if we all consume less, we don’t contribute to the economy and that will eventually lead to people losing their jobs. For example, if we all stopped consuming plastic crappy toys, the companies would go bankrupt. Or they’d stop producing useless crap and start producing something else.

SO, if this non-consuming idea happened in a big scale, would there still be enough consumption so that all the companies that produce useless crap could “survive” (by selling something else)?
If not (which is most likely I think), what would happen to all the people who lost their jobs. Now, perhaps this new non-consuming society would help them and redistribute goods equally… or not?

Now, that’s a rant. Your post was not a rant but a beautiful and inspiring thing that got me to be a little more desperate and a little more hopeful at the same time.
“And the reason has to do with a capitalist system that values monetary profits over true planetary and social justice.” THIS is the core of the problem! Now, if you still haven’t, I highly recommend you watch “Zeitgeist: addendum”. I’ve said that before, I don’t want to nag. I’d just really like to know your opinion about it. Pleeaase?
The song is great, it made me cry.

Lara from Arg

13 years ago

I have a baby on the way in Nov. and am trying to get what I need second hand. Someone is giving me a crib. I don’t want plastic toys and junk, but they are all over. As my child grows I will try to teach it that a lot of material things is not what life is all about. In my twenties I wanted all that stuff and dreamed of a big house etc. Now I realize what shallow values I grew up with and want very little. It saddens me that as a society we are so wasteful of our resources and our whole economy seems to rely on building big houses and filling them up with stuff. Drive by an open garage and most houses have a lot of crap stored in the garage that someday will be in a landfill. My rant for the day~ g

13 years ago

Rant Away! My opinion, for what it’s worth, is if I am going to buy something, then it is better to buy a more ecologicaly friendly version of what ever it is I am going to buy. So I can still vote with my dollars! But I agree there is way to much buy green shit out there!

13 years ago

Amen, Beth. The answer to the problem we’re facing is not buying something that is ‘green’ (and really may not be remotely so), it’s doing less. Buying less. Opting out of consumerism altogether.

13 years ago

I just made the comment the other day about how I have this underlying belief that to live a greener life, I’m supposed to buy greener stuff. I know that this isn’t true, but it’s an offshoot of one of those consumerist roots that we have: that if there is to be change we have to buy something first.

The thing is, I do keep a want list (all bookmarks on my computer) of things I think I want or need. The things I want, but say I don’t need, often get deleted somewhere between 1-3 weeks after I save it. Other things that I say I need, I wait a bit longer (a few months). A lot of those things I was convinced I needed are being deleted, replaced with a link to instructions on how to make the item myself using leftover stuff I already had.

Sure, some things like the stanless steel to-go ware + utensils set will probably forever be on my want list. But as long as I procrastinate a while on buying something, I’ll eventually figure out that I don’t have to have it.

…and then of course I’ll do something stupid, like buy a sticker that reads “Saying no to corporate crap” to remind me not to buy crap.

*shakes head*

I’m human.

13 years ago

great post and so true, buying less or buying things that are actually local and green is the way to go! adam at twilight earth had a similar post that hits the same nerve as your post, way to call them out! :)

Condo Blues
13 years ago

One thing you may not realize is that every single farm subsidiarity or government project is available to EVERY farmer – which includes small farms like my in-laws 50 acres to large factory farms. Whether the small farmers can or will take advantage of them is another matter.

13 years ago

I totally agree with Jacquelyn’s comment. It seems so many people think the three R’s are equal, if they are even aware of the first two.

13 years ago

RE: Eleanor’s comment about getting married. Seriously! My sister got married 2 yrs ago and her house looks like hoarders live there now! They just have so much crap! All those super specific, completely useless items like a quesadilla maker [hello, frying pan]. Anyway, if anyone lives in the State College, PA area and needs a gravy warmer, I’ll see what I can do.

13 years ago

Well put, Beth! My biggest beef with the whole environmental movement is the idea that buying anything new is the way to make changes for the better. Buying what you already buy, but better, is a step in the right direction, but buying less or not buying at all is best. I get tired of seeing ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ used to promote recycling, which I believe is the poorest of the 3, when if we are truly serious, we need to ‘Reduce, Reduce, Reduce’ then reuse everything possible, and only then recycle as a very last resort that is just slightly better than throwing it in the landfill.

13 years ago

Huzzah! Thank you for ranting the gripe that sits in the back of my head every time I hear about “this wonderful new product…” that someone mentions or buys.

I’m getting married in about 5 months, and WOW, we’ve never had so many people ask if they can buy us so many things that we just don’t need. When we suggest that while that would be lovely we don’t need it, the response is usually “Well, of course you might not need it, but that’s not the point, you’re getting married!” Being joined in holy/civil matrimony has about as much to do with shopping as Earth Day.

I keep telling people, if you want to do something for yourself, each other, and the planet – put down your wallet, go outside, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Rinse. Repeat. The path forward gets a little clearer each time you do that.

13 years ago

Love the tune! But the canvas bag song is still my fav. :-)

I know this isn’t the focus of Beth’s blog, but while since the post noted palm oil and the effects of mega palm plantations I’d like to mention the orangutans. If you aren’t familiar with the plight of orangutans due to palm plantations, this website is a good start.

So many things to consider when we shop. Yet another good reason to buy less!

13 years ago

Thanks for the rant! Yes, we ABSOLUTELY must stop consuming so much in America. I’m with you. I’m sick of being sold “green” to. It ain’t green if it has to be manufactured…no matter how you slice, dice, and recycle it. I’d like to encourage folks to use their local If you must have something, please join your local Freecycle group and look for it or ask for it. Otherwise, try to get by on what you truly need. Even if you practice this for only one week, just give it a try. Not consuming won’t kill us…despite what all the shrill economists tell us. It may kill the way we live now, the way we destroy the planet in our Pac Man way of consume, consume, consume. But is changing our ways a bad thing?

13 years ago

When you think about it, every bit of research that indicates what appeals to us is used for selling. Shopping is the ultimate sensual experience. Just think of all the subliminal (and not) sexual messages in selling. We are the bees and the beautiful flowers that attract us are the items in the stores and the stores themselves – and those flowers are always being improved in appearance, fragrance, don’t forget the music being played around them and the setting in which we find them.

When I walk into a store I keep in mind that everything there is designed to get me to buy even if I really don’t want to. Look on it as a challenge to your self-control. Never let yourself go – no more than you would to a guy on the street who says, “hey man, try some of this stuff!” Stay rational because the most powerful effort in marketing is to get you to lose it.

Not only do we need to be the bee that restrains itself, we also need to find substitutes for the pleasure of consuming. My favorite is reading. A single book will keep me happily occupied for many many hours. Video games (don’t laugh) are another. The complexity and challenge of a game like Civilization 4 is incredible; one game takes 15 hours or more to complete. Don’t forget friends with common low-impact interests like knitting, painting, photography, walking and bike riding. Best of all are things that provide physical exercise while providing something tangible in return such as gardening.