It's been more than 16 years since my book, The Green Consumer, was first published in the U.S. That was during the media frenzy of Earth Day 1990, when the world (or at least some of it) reawakened to the environmental challenges we face. We were told there were "50 simple things" we could do to save the earth, and we felt empowered.
At the time, it seemed like a floodgate of greener products was about to open. Large consumer product companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever were dipping their corporate toes into the green waters, with the expectation they would eventually dive in. Big retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart were doing in-store promos featuring environmentally improved products. We could smell the change coming.
It didn't come, of course. Many of those early products were outright failures: biodegradable trash bags that degraded a little too quickly; clunky fluorescent bulbs that emitted horrible hues; recycled paper products with the softness of sandpaper; greener cleaners that couldn't do their job. Much it was expensive and hard to find, to boot.
By about 1993, after flogging my green consumer mantra ("Every time you open your wallet, you cast a vote -- for or against the environment!") around much of North America and beyond, I peered over my shoulder and realized that I was more or less standing there alone. The great wave of "green consumerism" hadn't materialized.
Things have changed somewhat. A handful of greener products have gotten better and more cost-competitive. Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural food mega-marts have made some of them more accessible to the masses. A few of the more successful product purveyors have been swallowed by bigger fish, in most cases benefiting from their new owners' marketing and distribution clout. The food, beverage, and personal care markets made the deepest inroads, rolling out organic, nontoxic, free-range, Fair Trade, and other eco-improved products to everyday shoppers. (However, there is a health connection there: these are all things we put in, or on, our bodies. In other words, it's more personal than planetary.)
Outside of those categories, green products remain the exception rather than the rule. Can you name any trusted, mass-marketed brands of apparel or footwear that pass some reasonable green screen -- made from organic or recycled materials, naturally dyed, nontoxic, using environmentally friendly processes, etc.? True, Nike has a single product line that comes close, and there are many smaller firms with terrific green products but sparse distribution. But there's no Green Gucci, Gap, or Guess.
What about home furnishings? Any mainstream brands you can think of that are earnestly environmental? Or appliances, cameras, carpeting, consumer electronics, jewelry, kitchenware, sporting goods, tools, toys? Don't even get me started about cars!
(I'm guessing this post will elicit comments and e-mails touting smaller, niche companies that are making and selling environmentally exemplar products, and I welcome knowing about them. I see many of them during my periodic scans of environmental lifestyle sites. But how many can you purchase today, somewhere close to home?)
There are some encouraging signs that bigger players want to get in on the action. Last week, for example, Panasonic announced the launch of Panasonic Home and Environment Co., a new business unit focusing on energy-efficient consumer products and what it calls "green technology." Home Depot recently launched Eco Options, a line of products that meet "a rigorous set of criteria" covering energy efficiency, water efficiency, improved air quality, reduced toxicity, waste reduction, and greener materials -- but only in Canada; Eco Options aren't sold in the U.S. And of course there's Wal-Mart, which in recent months has committed to developing markets for sustainably harvested fish, organic cotton, and other sustainable products.
Also encouraging is that some big-time entrepreneurs are moving into the space, not the least of which is Steve Case, father of AOL, whose start-up, Revolution Living, is buying or investing in sustainability-minded brands like Gaiam and FlexCar. Case will find competition over the next year or so from other well-financed entrepreneurs, currently in stealth mode, seeking to do similar start-ups or roll-ups of consumer-facing green lifestyle brands.
It's all good, of course, but the pace of change still seems oh-so-slow. The green marketplace remains barely a blip on the screen for most consumer brands and retailers.
So, what would it take to reach the proverbial tipping point -- that virtuous cycle in which large, mainstream companies trip over one another trying to "out-green" the competition, offering a dizzying array of environmentally better products, available where most people live and shop?
Should we even look to big companies? Perhaps the mass-marketing of greener products will come from smaller, niche firms, some destined to become acquired by the behemoths, most left to find their comfortable, profitable markets. Or perhaps it will be a whole new breed of ambitious entrepreneurs and venture capitalists fueling the green world's version of the high-flying dot-com success stories. Or, ideally, all of the above.
Whatever the answer, it needs to happen soon. There seems to be a window of opportunity -- a burgeoning recognition by the public that we need new choices to help us combat climate change, global terrorism, toxic lifestyles, sweatshops, commodification, corporate malfeasance, and assorted other societal ills.
How can we make good, green products -- the things we use every day -- common and abundant? Should we look to Wal-Mart and Home Depot as the market makers? Or, if not them, who?
Nice piece, Joel. It functions as a good reminder that we aren't even close, that we aren't moving at a rapid pace, and that a LOT of work remains to be done. It's easy for most of us to talk about the movement and analyze the steps forward and back again, but where is our leadership? To me, that's the biggest question that needs to be answered. Bono? He's great, but not likely to be considered a true leader by many. Gore? Too partisan and had eight years to lead in which he did zero (putting his desire for further office ahead of the movement - a fatal character flaw). Hell, maybe it's Summer Rain? Or Ben Goldhirsh over at GOOD Magazine. My vote, personally, is for Lester Brown. Without an internationally recongnizable leader, one who can influence elections, actions, habits and policy, I don't think we'll see the wholesale push in the consumer market until it's too late. Paging the Pied Piper - where the hell are you?
This is not a job for business alone. Lovins et al stress that 'prices must tell the truth'. There has to be some realism to the 'rules of the game' to engineer a bright green future. An end to perverse subsidies is the single biggest necessity - see Prof Myers on this. Goverments routinely subsidise environmental degradation and distort markets. Prices are messages to consumers too, and help inform change. What point is there in covering up the real cost - and thus discouraging innovation and mainstrem greening?
Just to reinforce Ken's point, what we just have to do is MAKE THE PRICE EQUAL THE COST. If we keep hammering away on this essential requirement, we might get somewhere. The price of that nice soft fuzzy tissue paper should include its cost in water degradation, loss of forest, and all the rest.
At some point along that way, people will be forced to say "this stuff is lovely, but IT COSTS TOO MUCH! Then the less costly scratchy paper becomes what they will buy.
Even just noise to that effect will serve to bring the concept to the public mind, paving the way for eventual true costing at a later time.
When I try to make this point among my friends, I am constantly amazed to find how very few of them have ever heard of "external" unpaid costs and their pernicious effects. The word has to get around more.
That cash=free-speech has destroyed the political process in the US. Make it illegal for Politicians to receive moneys from anyone but constituents and much would change!
Nice piece Joel. Yes, I am one of those to pipe up and say, but what about this brand? True, there is no green Gap, so to speak, but on the other hand, I don't think that Patagonia is obscure and hard to find either. (...and they are now foraying into footwear)
Funny, before this I was just reading an interview with Summer Rayne Oakes over at treehugger.com
The interviewee asked:
TH: It seems were seeing the high fashion world paying lots of attention to sustainability issues. How long do you think it will take for the mass market to follow?
And I thought, what the...? I don't know what Jeff McIntire-Strasbourg's idea of high fashion is, but I surely don't see this. I just followed most of the shows in NY, Milan and Paris. How many were eco? Exactly one. That would be Noir, and they showed in London. There is your green Gucci.
What I really see is more young and independent designers going eco along with the smattering of bigger names rolling out eco-merchandise, like Wal-Mart and Levi's.
I started writing about environmentally friendly fashion last year for two reasons:
1. As you stated, it was fairly easy to find "good" products to ingest and rub on your skin, so since my tiny apartment is filled with a lot of "reused" things lit by CFLs and I don't drive a car, I realized clothing was my biggest environmental downfall, and
2. Because after years of searching and researching I finally was starting to find something more appealing than hemp skirts sewn by Phish fans or frumpy organic undies.
So, you can see I am somewhat caught between my aesthetics and my ethics. It has been almost a year covering the intersection of style and sustainability, however, and I have more to write about than I have time to write.
Hopefully, in the future, all things will just be made thoughtfully and consumers won't have to think about it, but for now, I think we need to be proactive. I believe with a little searching you can easily find eco-options. If not around the corner than surely a couple of clicks away. There are plenty of sites like mine that devote themselves to showcasing green products, such as the worsted witch, treehugger, inhabitat, great green goods, and fabulously green.
Ultimately, I think we need all levels of retailers to be involved. As you might have guessed, I don't buy my clothes at Wal-Mart, but they are part of the equation, just like boutiques are. Shouldn't we expect these products to be developed the way all products are, at various levels marketed to a variety of shoppers?
It also doesn't hurt to ask your favorite stores to start carrying some of these things. I know that is a step most consumers won't take, but it helps. I am trying to write a piece on Puma's Nuala line and it appears I know more than their PR person who cannot even tell me if the cotton is organic. If there is a demand, eventually there will be a supply.
On the topic of cars... and yes, this is the big and obvious one but also probably one of the most important with the most immediate impact...
First of all there was the GM/EV1 fiasco that was documented in "Who Killed the Electric Car" but now, even the hybrids... how many years has the Prius been on the road and how much has it's mileage improved? I mean, so far it's 60MPG (under ideal conditions) is the best it gets but rather than pushing that and trying to hit 65, 70, 75... Toyota releases the Camry Hybrid that only gets 40 and hybrid SUVs? Meanwhile, also, super compact regular cars like the Yaris that 40mpg with a standard engine. Why do these things never come together? Where's the Hybrid Yaris that gets 80MPG? Or even just an improved Prius?
Plus... what about Honda? They've never even HIT 60MPG and I don't see a ton of new hybrid models rolling off of their lines or nearly the marketing push from them that Toyota seems to make.
Again, back to the "Who Killed the Electric Car" where they were interviewing someone who custom converts Prius' so they can be plugged into an outlet in your garage... getting 150mpg for the first, I think it was 50 miles of driving per charge... then quotes from some exec later that the "plug-in" hybrid should be ready by 2020 when there's already people making them after market!
Also not to mention the hydrogen fuel cells that they have been telling us are 15 years off for the past 15 years...
Obviously the whole automobile-petroleum complex has to be one of the hardest nuts to crack but it's also one of the most important industries to green if we want to be able to continue to be mobile as a society and alive...
(sorry for ranting)
Great post Joel,
I usually don't weigh with in my opinions because I do a lot of complex work with industry through my photography and an activist label would pretty much shut me down.
This discussion can not be complete without bringing China into view since most of our stuff now comes from there. Trust me, I've seen the effects of externalizing first hand during my China project and it is much worse that you think. How do we stop our multinationals from externalizing on China's air, land, and water? How soon can we expect global environmental standards to kick in and then have everyone follow them? A daunting task.
What we are facing is that there are an awful lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck and saving a few cents here and there is all they can do to make ends meet. If the green product beside the conventional one is 20% higher - well - guess which one they will buy. As Ken Webster pointed out in his comments above that Lovins pegged the perverse practice of governments subsidizing environmental degradation, and I would add, because they know a bad economy means they get voted out so it should come as no surprise that they will sacrifice almost anything to keep the economy going . I believe it will take governments slowly shifting the subsidies that cause degradation to the green movement to reverse the negative impacts of production without causing massive unemployment and social decay for those involved in those industries. It will take a leader with a vision and they are hard to find these days.
But it is only the government who can begin to shift the subsidies and even out the price on the store floor. Then all people truly have a choice and I'm sure they will choose green because after all, who does not want a hopeful sustainable future - corporate leaders and government officials have children and grandchildren last time I checked.
There is also a ton of work to be done to awaken consumer consciousness. I have a quick story here. I was talking to the environmental group working within HP. HP has one of the best track records in the electronics industry for recycling of cartridges and reuse of them in their printers. They told me that the marketing department would not let the consumer know that these printers are made from recycled materials because the consumer would expect a lower price since it's not "new material". This goes to show how much farther we need to go to get it into peoples heads that there is consequence to everything.
I work every day to bring the margins of our consumer capitalist systems into full view. I believe images have a way of cutting through a lot of talk and getting to the crux - a massive hole in the ground or a mountain of 40 million tires. It's my way of trying to nudge that sluggish and often unaware collective consiousness forward. A properly informed electorate and consumer is the quickest way out of this predicament.
Great article. Agree there is much work to be done in the area of a totally sustainable garment.
Hang on and get ready for the total Greening of Textiles, I am sure you and other conscious consumers will be pleased.
Many in the industry, myself included have seen this as a need for quite some time.
Sometimes it takes agents of change to implement these processes, someone to stand up and say Hey, we need a garment with total integrity, what about zippers, and buttons, dyes and finishes, how about fair trade? Currently there is a group of industry change agent/experts including Brands and Manufactures, who have stood for this change and are working as a team to implement the processes and guidelines that will make a totally sustainable garment a reality in textiles by Spring 2008.
Processes and guidelines that consider, buttons, zippers, laces, trims, dyeing, chemical finishes, packaging and transportation as part of its sustainability quotient similar to an ingredient label which can be found on food.
As you are aware, food that is certified organic basically makes it way from farm to shelf----
With little else except; packaging and transportation to be considered.
Textiles such as cotton, make their way from Farm to Gin to Spinner to Dye house and so on, a process that is a bit more complicated,nonetheless one that is being forwarded by a committed and passionate group who will deliver much needed green garment integrity in the very near future.
Thanks!!!Coral Rose www.e-EcoInnovations.com
Echoing Tod's comment, where is our saviour who will make everything alright? Where is the leadership who will magically appear out of thin air to save our sorry asses whilst we twiddle our thumbs?
Lamenting a lack of leadership is fine, but it's hardly enough. People need to VOICE their concerns and DEMAND better of leadership. It's important that people get engaged in local decision-making. Go to meetings, make a presence. I've certainly learned a thing or two going to meetings of the Roundtable for the Environment in Toronto, Canada.
Its a valuable perspective to share- the feeling that you are a man with a good cause but find yourself alone because of bad timing. I think a lot of people can sympathize, and recognize the challenges, as previous comments have suggested we feel the need for a charismatic leader.
My favorite leader of 2006 is Steven Colbert, the man not the character. He, and his team, realized the gap between policy and reality was muddled by so much double-talk the public didnt know which way was up. By showing us the black and white of issues (through an absurdly funny polar approach) we are better able to determine the shades of gray. I think much of the green consumers out there feel lost in the maze of organic, sustainable, pollution, speak. I think what green products need is a right-wing nut on cable TV to show us the way.
It's as-if the behemoths are asleep! We're (us lil guys) are doing all the hard work preparing the country for a total retrofit and you're right they'll probably swoop us up... hopefully we'll figure out how to incorporate our values into the succession!
Thanks, Joel, for your inspiring work.
Excellent post. I saw Bill McDonough speak about his Cradle to Cradle design and my first thought was when will it be at HomeDepot so I can purchase the products?
As a (sustainable) designer I really believe that design can and will solve a lot of the challenges we are faced with here. One thing that I am convinced of is that it will be a long and hard effort up until when we reach critical mass or the tipping point as Joel put it. As a designer I know that it's my responsibility to develop desirable and highly functional products that make it easy for people to make the right decision. If consumers are expected to make the right decision but have to choose between a toxic but beautiful white paper or a rough and inconsistent recycled green paper then I know we have work to do. There is way too much information and variables involved for consumers to balance and make the overall right decisions. Plus, the right decision in NYC will more often than not be different in a smaller suburban town.
It’s a little bit like the (chicken or the egg) syndrome right now but as more designers, architects, engineers and entrepreneurs see the light we will have more opportunity to create products that enable change at the consumer level.
It's not impossible to make a sustainable product better and cheaper than the competition, it's just harder but this challenge is what should inspire us.