Green consumerism- problem or solution

Everything I’ve read in the past few days for two of my classes seem to relate to one another in one major way (or rather, they all pose the same question): do consumers have the ability to make choices that actually challenge or protest against the corporations producing these commodities, or the “culture industries,” or the value system of capitalism itself?

I’m going to attempt to answer that question drawing upon three separate sources: the “Popular Culture as an Arena of Hegemony” article, an article about “green consumption” I read last night, and my own personal experiences/choices as a consumer.

Actually it’s probably better to start off by talking about my own feelings on this matter. I know I’m going to sound rather cynical, but I remain unconvinced that consumers can actually make decisions in the marketplace that challenge “the system” (whether we’re referring to capitalism or mass industrial civilization or mass culture, or all three). When I walk down the street to A&B Naturals and buy some all-natural, organic, locally-baked bread, I am making a good decision in many respects. I’m making a good decision for myself, because I’m buying something healthier (healthier than, for instance, buying a loaf of bread from Hannaford that might’ve been baked in California and contains lots of preservatives). I’m supporting a local business, which is good for the local economy (and assuming I care about this community- which I do- that might be reason enough to shop at A&B over a large chain store). 

But does my choice to buy that type of bread really challenge the system in any meaningful way? Am I somehow empowered because I have the opportunity to choose between buying local food and food imported from across the globe? It’s nice to have that choice, yes. It’s nice to be able to make choices as a consumer that align with my value system. But I don’t believe making “good” choices (like buying that bread) constitute a meaningful rebellion against the status quo economic/cultural norms & system(s)..for a few reasons

  1. Most people still are not making those choices (sometimes because they just don’t care, or sometimes because they’re uninformed…but often because they do not have the economic or cultural means to do so…and thus they are trapped within the status quo)
  2. Thus— there is still a demand for things like Wonder Bread, bananas imported from Costa Rica, processed foods laden with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and unpronounceable ingredients, etc.
  3. The system has become so massive and overwhelming that escape (by this I mean living off the grid, or growing/producing all your own food, making all your own clothes, etc) is simply not an option for that many people…so, regardless of what we choose to consume, we’re still consuming 
  4. Mass culture is still spreading the same message: buy all of this shit and you’ll be happier/prettier/satisfied/cool/popular. I think there is a growing trend among people (and thus, perhaps, popular culture) to reject that message..but it’s not strong enough to constitute a serious threat to the culture industry.
  5. Corporations lie to us all of the time- there are very few standards for slapping labels like “Organic,” “Humane,” and “Sustainable” on products. This makes it harder for us to be conscious consumers.

I try to make good choices as a consumer, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t have the money to buy all local. I’m a college student on a tight budget- which for me means that I buy local/organic/sustainable/Fair Trade as much as I can- but that is definitely not as often as I’d like. I don’t have the means right now to start a huge garden, or raise livestock for eggs/milk/food. 

A quote in the “Arena of Hegemony” reading seems applicable here:

Consumerism is far more than just economic activity: it is also about dreams and consolation, communication and confrontation, image and identity…Consumerism is a discourse through which disciplinary power is both exercised and contested.  (Mica Nava)

I agree that disciplinary power is exercised in consumerism, but I think it is very difficult to contest this power through the system that is, in some ways, the very manifestation of it. I guess I’m also not completely sold on the idea that popular culture is (or can be) very empowering and meaningful and a way to contest mass culture/the culture industry (the ideas of Fiske and Gramsci). I suppose I think pop culture can be used to criticize “the system” but I’m not sure it’s used for that purpose as often as it should be.

Finally, I read a great piece on Green Consumerism by Timothy Luke for my human ecology class. He writes about how the notion that we can ‘save the planet by making 50 easy lifestyle changes’ is both untrue and extremely dangerous. Here are a couple of relevant quotes from his work-

The logic of these corporate institutions’ resistance, then, just like the logic of the average consumer’s initial compliance, is centered on the still largely passive sphere of consumption rather than on the vital sites of production.

This variety of environmentalism is virtually meaningless as a program for radical social transformation because it serves an agenda of conservative idealogical containment that also is almost completely anthropocentric.

Green consumerism, which allegedly began as a campaign to subvert and reduce mass marketing, now ironically assists the definition and expansion of mass marketing by producing new kinds of consumer desire.

I think the point Luke makes in the last quote is particularly thought-provoking: does the demand (that seems to be growing pretty rapidly) for “greener” products actually feed into the a consumerist culture/society by simply creating more products and tossing a label onto them that doesn’t actually mean anything?

I’m not quite as against “green consumerism” as Luke seems to be. To paraphrase something Davis Taylor said at the human ecology lecture yesterday…”We should live in a simpler, more sustainable, healthier (for the planet) way not solely because it’s going to ‘change the world,’ because it won’t. We should do so because it makes us lead happier, healthier lives.”

However I do think it is dangerous to get too caught up in changing our own individual (or family) lifestyles because that can be a distraction from the bigger societal/cultural/economic changes and value shifts that need to take place.

Here’s a quote from one of my favorite authors/activists/thinkers, Derrick Jensen, that sums up how I feel pretty well:

Yes, it’s vital to make lifestyle choices to mitigate damage caused by being a member of industrial civilization, but to assign primary responsibility to oneself, and to focus primarily on making oneself better, is an immense copout, an abrogation of responsibility. With all the world at stake, it is self-indulgent, self-righteous, and self-important. It is also nearly ubiquitous. And it serves the interests of those in power by keeping our focus off of them.

first-year college student enrolled in a pop culture class.

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