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<TITLE>E.7 Can green consumerism stop the ecological crisis?</TITLE>
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<p>

<H1>E.7 Can green consumerism stop the ecological crisis?</h1>
<p>
No. In fact, it could make it worse by creating new markets and thus
increasing growth. However, just so there is no misunderstanding: we fully
recognise that using recycled or renewable raw materials, reducing consumption
and buying <I>"ecologically friendly"</I> products and technologies <B>are</B> very
important,
and we would be the last to denounce such a thing. But such measures are
of very limited use as solutions to the ecological problems we face. At best
they can only delay, not prevent, capitalism's ultimate destruction of the
planet's ecological base.
<p>
Green consumerism is the only thing the establishment has to offer in the
face of mounting ecological destruction. Usually it boils down to nothing
more than slick advertising campaigns by big corporate polluters to hype
band-aid measures such as using a few recycled materials or contributing
money to a wildlife fund, which are showcased as <I>"concern for the
environment"</I> while off camera the pollution and devouring of non-renewable
resources goes on. They also engage in <b><I>"greenwashing"</I></b>, 
in which companies lavishly
fund PR campaigns to paint themselves "green" without altering their current
polluting practices! 
<p>
This means that apparently "green" companies and products actually
are not. Many firms hire expensive Public Relations firms and produce 
advertisements to paint a false image of themselves as being ecologically 
friendly (i.e. perform <b><i>"greenwashing"</i></b>). This indicates a weakness of
market economies -- they hinder (even distort) the flow of information
required for consumers to make informed decisions. The market does not 
provide enough information for consumers to determine whether a product 
<b>is</b> actually green or not -- it just gives them a price and advertising.
Consumers have to rely on other sources, many of which are minority 
journals and organisations and so difficult to find, to provide them 
with the accurate information required to countermand the power and 
persuasion of advertising and the work of PR experts (see the chapter 
on greenwashing called <i>"Silencing Spring"</i> in John Stauber and Sheldon 
Rampton's <b>Toxic Sludge is Good for You!</b> for a good summary of the 
use of PR firms). 
<p>
Even apparently ecologically friendly firms like "The Body Shop"
can present a false image of what they do. For example, journalist
Jon Entine investigated that company in 1994 and discovered that
only a minuscule fraction of its ingredients came from <b>Trade Not
Aid</b> (a program claimed to aid developing countries). Entine also
discovered that the company also used many outdated, off-the-shelf
product formulas filled with non-renewable petrochemicals as well
as animal tested ingredients. When he contacted the company he
received libel threats and it hired a PR company to combat Entine's
story. [John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, <b>Toxic Sludge is Good 
for You!</b>, pp. 74-5] This highlights the dangers of looking to 
consumerism to solve ecological problems. As Entine argues:
<p><blockquote><i>
"The Body Shop is a corporation with the privileges and power
in society as all others. Like other corporations it makes
products that are unsustainable, encourages consumerism,
uses non-renewable materials, hires giant PR and law firms,
and exaggerates its environment policies. If we are to become
a sustainable society, it is crucial that we have institutions
. . . that are truly sustainable. The Body Shop has deceived
the public by trying to make us think that they are a lot
further down the road to sustainability than they really are.
We should . . . no longer . . . lionise the Body Shop and
others who claim to be something they are not."</I> [quoted by
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, <B>Toxic Sludge is Good for 
You!</B>, p. 76]
</blockquote><P>
Thus green consumerism is hindered by the nature of the market -- 
how the market reduces everything to price and so hides the
information required to make truly informed decisions on what
to consume. Moreover, it is capable of being used to further 
ecological damage by the use of PR to paint a false picture of 
the companies and their environmental activities. Even assuming
companies are honest and do minimise their environmental damage
they cannot face the fundamental cause of the ecological crisis 
in the "grow-or-die" principle of capitalism ("green" firms
need to make profits, accumulate capital and grow bigger), nor do 
they address the pernicious role of advertising or the lack of 
public control over production and investment under capitalism. 
Hence it is a totally inadequate solution.
<p>
Andrew Watson sums up green consumerism very eloquently as follows: 
<p><blockquote>
<I>"green
consumerism, which is largely a cynical attempt to maintain profit
margins, does not challenge capital's eco-cidal accumulation, but actually
facilitates it by opening a new market. All products, no matter how
'green', cause some pollution, use some resources and energy, and cause
some ecological disturbance. This would not matter in a society in which
production was rationally planned, but in an exponentially expanding
economy, production, however 'green', would eventually destroy the Earth's
environment. Ozone-friendly aerosols, for example, still use other
harmful chemicals; create pollution in their manufacture, use and
disposal; and use large amounts of resources and energy. Of course, up to
now, the green pretensions of most companies have been exposed largely as
presenting an acceptably green image, with little or no substance. The
market is presented as the saviour of the environment. Environmental
concern is commodified and transformed into ideological support for
capitalism. Instead of raising awareness of the causes of the ecological
crisis, green consumerism mystifies them. The solution is presented as an
individual act rather than as the collective action of individuals
struggling for social change. The corporations laugh all the way to the
bank"</I> [<B>From Red to Green</B>, pp. 9-10]
</blockquote><p>
Green consumerism, by its very nature, cannot challenge the "grow-or-die"
nature of capitalism. Even "green" companies must make a profit, and hence
must expand in order to survive. "Ethical" consumerism, like "ethical"
investment, is still based on profit making, the extraction of surplus
value from others. This is hardly "ethical," as it cannot challenge the
inequality in exchange that lies at the heart of capitalism nor the
authoritarian social relationships it creates. 
<p>
In addition, since capitalism is a world system, companies can produce and
sell their non-green and dangerous goods elsewhere. Many of the products
and practices banned or boycotted in developed countries are sold and used
in developing ones. For example, Agent Orange (used as to defoliate
forests during the Vietnam War by the US) is used as an herbicide in the
Third World, as is DDT. Agent Orange contains one of the most toxic
compounds known to humanity and was responsible for thousands of deformed
children in Vietnam. Ciba-Geigy continued to sell Enterovioform (a drug
which caused blindness and paralysis in at least 10,000 Japanese users of
it) in those countries that permitted it to do so. Ciba-Geigy, by the way,
also sprayed a pesticide called Galecron on unprotected Egyptian children
to test its safety. The company later claimed it deeply regretted using
the children as "volunteers." Many companies have moved to developing
countries to escape the stricter pollution and labour laws in the
developed countries.
<p>
Neither does green consumerism question why it should be the ruling elites
within capitalism that decide what to produce and how to produce it. 
Since these elites are driven by profit considerations, if it is profitable
to pollute, pollution will occur. Moreover, green consumerism does not
challenge the (essential) capitalist principle of consumption for the sake
of consumption, nor can it come to terms with the fact that "demand" is
created, to a large degree, by "suppliers," specifically by advertising
agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public tastes, as
well as using their financial clout to ensure that "negative" (i.e.
truthful) stories about companies' environmental records do not surface in
the mainstream media.
<p>
Because ethical consumerism is based <B>wholly</B> on market solutions to the
ecological crisis, it is incapable even of recognising the <B>root</B> cause of
that crisis, namely the atomising nature of market society and the social
relationships it creates. Atomised individuals ("soloists") cannot change
the world, and "voting" on the market hardly reduces their atomisation.
As Murray Bookchin argues, <I>"[t]ragically, these millions [of 'soloists']
have surrendered their social power, indeed, their very personalities, to
politicians and bureaucrats who live in a nexus of obedience and command
in which they are normally expected to play subordinate roles. <B>Yet this
is precisely the immediate cause of the ecological crisis of our time</B> --
a cause that has its historic roots in the market society that engulfs us."</I>
[<B>Toward an Ecological Society</B>, p. 81]
<p>
Until market society is dismantled, solutions like ethical consumerism
will be about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. 
Such solutions are doomed to failure because they promote individual
responses to social problems, problems that by their very nature require 
collective action, and deal only with the symptoms, rather than focusing 
on the cause of the problem in the first place.
<p>

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