Buying the Change You Want to Be

The problem seems to be not just carbon use, but the attitude that both the Earth and consumers are resources that can and should be exploited.

Photo by  Philipp Balunovic .

It is not a far leap of logic from consumerism to unsustainability. The constant scree of buy, buy, buy is unmatched by an equal nag to repair, reuse, recycle. Consumerism cannot possibly be sustainable; by its very nature, it takes more out of the Earth than it returns. Even if carbon were no issue at all, our current habits, if continued, will necessarily deplete raw ores entirely within the lifetimes of our grandchildren. We’ll hit a ceiling on how much food we could physically cram into an acre. Consumerism requires that participants buy more, ever more, to feed an economy predicated on growth and profit, and this strategy is simply doomed to fail eventually. Nothing can grow forever—ask any tumor.

Capitalism’s unsustainability is not something that the business community appears to be prepared for. The great wheel of world commerce rotates on the common assumption that making money is a good thing. It may be the only thing upon which every human power on Earth agrees. Even avowedly ecologically-conscious businesses like Unilever struggle to resolve their carbon footprint with their stated values. Theoretically, a business might choose to reinvest its profits in reclamation of its consumer waste or mitigation of its carbon footprint, or even accept smaller short-term returns in exchange for long-term viability. This could be a bid to extend its own life in the same way that a conscientious exerciser might go to the gym every day. But the health benefits of exercise are a given. Statistically speaking, if a person exercises, they’ll lengthen their life.

By contrast, what is good for businesses in the long run may be directly at odds with what is good for businesses in the short run; businesses are broadly considered to be either growing or dying. Lengthening their potential life may be a consideration, but increasing profit as fast as possible is the first priority. To grow, businesses must not only accelerate their resource use, but prove to shareholders that they are strong and viable in the only way they can: by getting bigger than their competitors in record time. Think of them as people who focus so much on rocketing their career forward that they neglect their own health: In the short term, focusing on high growth is the only practical way to satisfy investors in a competitive market. In the long run, it’s a strategy that isn’t healthy for the company or the planet. As the main source of business revenue, consumers must be carefully socialized to ensure that the fallacy of eternal growth does not prevent them from continuing to drive business.

The niche of enviro-consumerism has arisen in the space between consumers’ buying habits and an acknowledged limitations of the planet’s resources. There is no doubt that consumer pressure has driven the rise of green buying, which encompasses organic food, biodegradable washing products, and merchandise marketed as sustainably-sourced. About 66% of consumers are eager to buy eco-friendly products, even willing to pay more for the privilege. Consumer Reports claims that organic food is, on average, 47% more expensive than conventionally grown produce, but this doesn’t stop people from buying organic—in fact, in its short product life, organic food has become a $43 billion industry.

The problem is that ‘buying green’ is still an aspect of a consumer, growth-driven economy. If the economy itself isn’t transitioning rapidly away from fossil fuels, then all the organic produce in the world will do little good. Consider the example of the banana. Bananas can be grown organically. However, buying a banana in Massachusetts, for example, remains a carbon-heavy proposition due to the necessary care and shipping of that banana. That doesn’t even cover the carbon price of the deforestation that has occurred to support the banana plantation, the banana monoculture that affects the local ecology, and the equipment required to grow, label, and treat bananas of any kind. Organic bananas, marketed as a greener alternative, are not necessarily an environmentally ethical choice. The Oxford-based publication Our World In Data finds that the ecological benefits of organic food are debatable at best. Worse, pricey opt-up commodities like organic food exclude people who cannot afford to buy them, despite their ethics. This underscores the narrative that only the rich can afford to worry about the environment.

Dr. Karen Higgins, author of Economic Growth and Sustainability, President of ÉLAN Leadership Concepts, and adjunct at Claremont Graduate University, argues that buying organic ultimately lets consumers off the hook. Having done their part in a socially acceptable way, they feel free to enjoy a lifestyle that remains inherently unsustainable. A plastic bag of organic food becomes not an oxymoron, but a moderate step in the right direction, taken at some expense and personal sacrifice. It falls within a pattern of behavior that treats some waste as inevitable, even when it is actually a mere convenience. Items like plastic bags and milk cartons are engineered to be trash. It takes fossil fuels to make them, fossil fuels to recycle them, and space to store them after their brief lives. Nevertheless, their function allows for the proliferation of things that would otherwise be more expensive to store, ship, and sell.

Yet halting consumer activity overnight is a recipe for economic disaster. Our current system depends not on mere consumption, but on consumption in excess. Without that engine, demand would falter, leading to skyrocketing unemployment and widespread destitution. To avoid this outcome, the entire system must change in concert and over a lengthy period of time, carefully migrating from a fossil fuel economy to one that takes into account waste, spending, and sustainability all at once.

The job is monumental; it’s hard to imagine what such a world would look like. The level of conscious decoupling from carbon fuel alone would be a monumental, whole-system effort that would touch every aspect of society. However, there is research in favor of consumerism supporting both our current way of life and a healthier planet. Charlie Wilson and Arnulf Grubler, researchers who co-published a scenario supporting low-energy consumerism in June, believe that directed consumerism -- that is, focusing on energy usage downsizing and other green options -- can truly save the world. Consumers are a powerful stampede. Imagine if that stampede could be directed toward something productive.

However, other experts, namely Diana Ivanova of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, believe that up to 80 per cent of global environmental impact may be attributable to consumption. Consumer silos like fashion and electronics occasionally appear in the news as examples of pointless sources of emissions, luxuries of convenience with hidden environmental costs. Yet consumers need to wear clothes, and whether we like it or not, cell phones are now a fact of life. Consumers don’t have the luxury of refusing to buy. Economists look at consumerism as a phenomenon that can be directed, but consumers only have so many buying options. They are at the mercy of what’s available and what’s required. They won’t stop buying cell phones no matter what their environmental impact. Even for consumers who sincerely want to change the world with their dollars, the amount of control they have over consumerism’s relative benefit for the environment is small under the best of circumstances.

The idea of buying green is attractive because it furnishes the illusion that the buyer has more control over their circumstances than they actually do. The eco-consumerist ethic can be reassuring: here’s a way go about your daily activities like cutting your lawn and driving to work and eating chocolate without losing hope, or worse, feeling guilty. The enormity of the consumer problem extends to the building of roads and malls, the burning of bright lights on movie sets and on illuminated billboards, the carbon footprint of the very shoes on your feet. To look into that abyss—the reality that there is no current way to meet human needs and live carbon-free—is to realize that it goes all the way down. Given a choice between the abyss and the reassurance of an expensive tomato, consumers will opt for the tomato. Consumers who are aware don’t benefit psychologically by examining that choice too closely. Cognitive dissonance could make every grocery trip a nightmare of indecision and angst, not to mention fresh knowledge that every mile driven in the transportation of a load of oranges is another nail in the Earth’s coffin.

If a shopper can convince themselves that a certain product is actually good for the environment, then they can reassure themselves that they’re doing everything possible, even landing a blow on the right side of the climate fight. Shopping becomes a salve, even a virtue. Anyway, what else could they do? Individuals may feel that they have little influence on an indifferent political machine, and “voting with your dollars” has long been an activist strategy. The idea that boycotting a heavy polluter isn’t enough leaves the consumer with little but frustration. Green brands become moral choices this way. Consumers feel as though they’re using their economic might for good  and producers make money. Everybody wins, until everybody loses.

The idea that growth capitalism is a slow poison isn’t new. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, for example, delves deep into the problems of an eternal growth model on a finite planet. Four years after that book’s publication, however, shoppers buy green with more fervor than ever even as growth capitalism accelerates toward its own inevitable demise. Whether there is magical thinking at work or just the magic of marketing is hard to say. It is possible that an economy that needs consumers as badly as ours does will say anything to make them continue their lucrative behavior, even if that behavior is unsustainable. For that reason, it is difficult to look at corporate sustainability claims and research about fighting climate change with consumerism without wondering if we are being manipulated. The problem seems to be not just carbon use, but the attitude that both the Earth and consumers are resources that can and should be exploited.

However, the rise of minimalism and buy-nothing movements suggests that not every consumer is sanguine with the current model. Karen Higgins challenges the idea that customers universally like and want what is called the “hedonic treadmill.” This psychological effect leads consumers to buy to soothe themselves, only to find that ownership does not continue to make them happy. In the case of eco-friendly products, it’s easy to take this concept one step further: concerned consumers, seeing few other feasible options for “saving the world,” spend extra money to buy eco-friendly, only to find that carbon emissions have risen once again. The righteousness of their own buying habits reinforces the treadmill’s power over them. After all, they did their part and bought the right thing. It’s those other people who are ruining the world with their wasteful habits. The green buying treadmill not only deludes the consumer, but separates them from others who are in the same essential position: that of being obligated to buy.

Higgins suggests that leaving the treadmill may depend upon replacing consumer soothing behaviors with community. Relationships can’t be bought and the sense of well-being that comes from spending time with friends can’t be packaged or mass-produced. A sustainable economy might well be based on a happiness index rather than a capital gains measurement.

However, three things about treadmill exit are unclear: whether it is possible to any degree for the average individual, how to convince comfortable consumers that the treadmill is hurting them, and whether their departure would affect economic growth philosophy. Consumers can’t leave the pharmaceutical, banking, and agriculture industries. There is no alternative financial infrastructure for medicine, pay stubs, and food. Whether we choose to participate or not, the economy might simply drag us all along with it until leadership redirects the entire ship.

This is why some economists feel that departing from consumer behavior wouldn’t put a large dent in the growth economy. Dr. William Rees, former director and Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning, estimates that consumers could cut two to ten per cent of emissions by altering their activity, and while this would be an admirable and worthwhile outcome, it would be far from sufficient. Even to achieve those returns, everyone on Earth would need to act in concert, some giving up luxuries and others relinquishing a first-world future. The free rider problem would become a serious point of contention, as consumers who simply refuse to make changes continue their bad environmental behavior in spite of the efforts of others.

The solution, says Rees, must be legislative. There has been a great deal of discussion about what this could look like. Governments will need to levy carbon and consumption taxes and regulate environmental behavior. There may need to be a rule forcing adoption of electric cars. There may need to be a rule against having a car, period. Of course, this assumes that the government experiences enough pressure from its citizens that it chooses their concerns over those of the corporate interests whose growth it currently values. This would require that consumers prioritize voting green rather than buying green, and then hold their elected eco-friendly leaders accountable if change doesn’t happen. That political pressure must be greater than the allure of a fast-ballooning economy. As Higgins points out, the happiness of its people is not currently part of a government’s rubric for success. Governments care about their economic growth and GDP. Rees’s point is that the better way to fight consumerism is to become political. With an active public, disappointing businesses will become a less immediate danger to politicians than the threat of getting voted out of office. Until then, the political environment is likely to continue favoring the growth economy. There is little point in trying to divorce consumerism without the lawyers on our side.

But growth capitalism is all that many Americans have ever known. Moreover, it is difficult to envision the alternatives. Pearl-clutchers in government like to pit growth capitalism against eco-socialism, casting them as diametric opposites. According to the narrative, we can make money and be normal or we can be sustainable and live in gulags. That, of course, is preposterous. Rees points out, that “steady” only refers to growth. A steady economy is by no means a static one; it progresses, develops, and adapts like a growth system. Its members may become wealthy and profit may be made, depending on how the system is engineered. But it just doesn’t balloon uncontrollably, consuming ever-more resources beyond our ecological limits.  

Achieving a steady-state economy would be a challenge. For one thing, Rees says, population overrun could make a steady state economy a miserable trap. Population growth requires a higher level of consumption, which in turn defies the idea of a steady state. It would either grow out of its steadiness and revert to a growth economy automatically, or resource scarcity would force rationing, or worse. A steady system is also susceptible to domination by oligarchs who exert self-interested control over a nation’s course. Nevertheless, it is theoretically possible to navigate past these hazards, nevermind the fact that it might require a certain amount of lifestyle adjustment on the part of the citizens of a steady state. Rees recommends a democratic welfare state and the book Managing Without Growth by Peter Victor.

That said, it’s hard to see a steady state happening in a heavily capitalist society like the U.S. The cultural shift alone would require strong leadership, and that wouldn’t even begin to tackle the political influence of businesses and their shareholders. A steady state might remove the opportunity to become or be rich, meaning its prospect would yield ruling class opposition. Furthermore, without universal adoption, the talent that previously drew top dollar might simply abandon a newly sustainable economy for one that focuses on growth. Meanwhile, consumers who are used to the hedonic treadmill could go through a kind of withdrawal: a steady state economy, for example, would be one without Black Friday doorbusters. The product placement and advertising revenue supporting glitzy TV shows and online services might dwindle, and products with a relatively short lifespan, like mobile phones, could become more expensive and more precious.

But the idea that we are stuck in hedonic, almost robotic behaviors, is too bleak. With the rise of democratic socialists in government, it’s possible to see a path forward where legislation will free consumers from their terrible, possibly pointless choices, and perhaps reduce the importance of their roles as consumers. At that point, Americans, at least, will need a new identity. There is no TV show, no musical artist, no politician that does not tacitly support the concept of getting richer and richer forever. The idea of the growth model is that everyone must eventually prosper, giving Americans a reason to put up with the small humiliations of capitalism. The ticket is expensive, but your bet on the outcome of the game is guaranteed. You’ll win, and then capitalism will pay for itself.

The idea that luxury is infinite may be the first thing that has to go if change is to happen. If the much-vaunted Green New Deal manifests, then it might replace the glorification of a consumer economy with a pull-together spirit reminiscent of World War II-era work ethic, not to mention a government-directed migration to renewables and economic stimulus, smoothing the economic transition for homebuyers, investors, and startups. A pull-together spirit could manifest as the result of a push for clean energy jobs, but proponents of the GND gloss over the basic incompatibility of American-style growth capitalism with a sustainable Earth. Solar energy won’t be enough: waste management will need to be revolutionized, rapacious processing of natural resources will need to slow, and consumer culture will need to dissipate. In concept, the GND will exclude some of growth capitalism’s worst supporters: people who take money from fossil fuel interests. It also promises to be expensive, and damned be GDP until this country is carbon-neutral. However, if it won’t address the problem of consumerism, then it’s only going halfway toward a real solution to our unsustainable economic philosophy.

Only strong political leadership will convince Americans that shopping sprees are out and Victory Gardens are in. Even in Depression-era America, Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats were what stayed an expected run on Depression-era banks and saved the struggling nation from another panic. When our leaders address consumerism, it is always in support of the existing economic structure. The roadblocks GND supporters face from the Democratic establishment smack of loyalty to a growth economy. No FDR-style cultural leadership can emerge from there.

But if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Green New Dealers can manifest their vision, a charismatic political leader could rally Americans with a vision of hope more attractive than the new iPhone. In an age of media overload, political offices and leaders could tap into the economy of relationships that Higgins discusses, building rapport to drive a nationwide cultural shift away from consumerism. There’s already a thriving self-reliance movement happening on the ground, as evidenced by the popularity of urban chicken coops, CSAs, and canning.

With thirty-five percent of surveyed Americans either considering minimalism or actively living the lifestyle, the popularity of having less stuff suggests that people are willing to focus less on things - at least, in theory. Now could be the moment for leadership to successfully re-shape the American economy. Or, the shock may be too much, and consumers may rebel. We are used to buying, so much so that many of us default to it as a soothing mechanism. The answer to unsustainable consumer practices may require more than a logical argument and directives to change our ways. Even if legislation passes, politicians throw over their interest in the growth economy and rise to the challenge of actually talking to their constituents, and business sees the wisdom of adopting stable models rather than growth models, citizens may insist on continuing their behavior. Shopping is a way of life for people born and raised on the hedonic treadmill. Without the dopamine zing of a product bought, some of them might need to face the existential emptiness of consumerism and the reasons that they resonate so deeply with materialism. It is a bad day when you realize that you have nothing to look forward to except the next big sale.

We cannot rely on consumerism to save us from climate change. Its whole point -- for a few people to get wealthy through the zombie-like treadmill behavior of the masses -- was always short-sighted, not to mention an insult to consumers whose quality of life is not improved by the glorification of luxuries. But capability for excess is something that our current system supports and even rewards. An economy based on relationships and personal fulfillment might not have room for fancy sports cars and brain-breaking personal wealth. Would we miss the envy, the aspiration to a goal of ownership whose reality is either unrealistic or disappointing? Would we dream of the days when the savor of luxury goods was dulled by their universal availability on

We would. God help us, but we would miss the world we could buy when ads told us that happiness was barbeque ribs and a new Ford F-150. We’re addicts to this way of life, constantly on the go for another hit of hedonic consumerist dopamine. For that to go away, we will need a dual push and pull, pressure from leadership and a conscious willingness to change our culture from the ground. Greenwashing is a pre-emptive brace, the business community’s immune response against a cultural shift away from eternal, pointless accumulation of things.

The process of abandoning the treadmill will be one of substitution. As horrifying as it is, the repetitive cycle of want, buy, and toss provides something that our proposed system does not. Materialism has become a substitute for social engagement, as well as a measure of personal quality and success. To replace it, we need to start by evaluating why we care about our things. Obviously we can’t refuse to buy -- not completely -- but we need to learn to miss the relationships and face to face community engagement that gave life meaning before we became targets of a million Facebook ad campaigns. Only then can we disembark from the treadmill, and get down to the business of saving ourselves from the inevitable result of overconsumption.

That’s why instructions on stopping climate change need to emphasize relationship-building, conversation-having, shell-leaving. To get away from negative climate behaviors, we need to get away from consumerism; to get away from consumerism, we need to reinvest in each other. This will be the hardest transition of all. Yet, in the words of a riveter who lived in equally interesting times, we can do it. We have to. The growth economy does not care about us beyond our ability to support it financially. Our advantage as consumers is that we each have the capability for compassion, not just for the planet where we live, but for each other and ourselves. It’s time to use it.

Anna Gooding-Call is a writer and environmental activist living in Salem, Massachusetts. She tweets @annagoodingcall.