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Privatizing Responsibility: the Times On Green Consumerism
Alex Steffen, 1 Jul 07

Getting misunderstood by the New York Times is a strange experience: it's a bit frustrating, but you have to still be kind of flattered that it happened at all.

So I certainly have a mixed emotions about the Times' story today, Buying Into the Green Movement:

HERE’S one popular vision for saving the planet: Roll out from under the sumptuous hemp-fiber sheets on your bed in the morning and pull on a pair of $245 organic cotton Levi’s and an Armani biodegradable knit shirt. Stroll from the bedroom in your eco-McMansion, with its photovoltaic solar panels, into the kitchen remodeled with reclaimed lumber. Enter the three-car garage lighted by energy-sipping fluorescent bulbs and slip behind the wheel of your $104,000 Lexus hybrid. Drive to the airport, where you settle in for an 8,000-mile flight— careful to buy carbon offsets beforehand — and spend a week driving golf balls made from compacted fish food at an eco-resort in the Maldives.

That vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to buy appeals to millions of consumers and arguably defines the current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement. ...

“There is a very common mind-set right now which holds that all that we’re going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon us is make slightly different shopping decisions,” said Alex Steffen, the executive editor of, a Web site devoted to sustainability issues.

The genuine solution, he and other critics say, is to significantly reduce one’s consumption of goods and resources. It’s not enough to build a vacation home of recycled lumber; the real way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to only own one home.

Actually, as i told Alex Williams (who, it should be noted, did an otherwise excellent job), I believe something quite different: that the genuine solution is not a matter of consumer choice at all.

There is no combination of purchasing decisions which will make the current affluent American lifestyle sustainable. You can't shop your way to sustainability, as I've put it before. On a planet running up against so severe a set of deadlines -- global warming, the extinction crisis, the poverty crisis, etc. -- prosperity as currently delivered is frankly immoral, even when purchased with an eco-chic package.

That doesn't mean that I think prosperity itself is wrong. Quite the opposite. Nor do I think we could talk people out of wanting prosperity if we tried -- heck, I hope for a generous amount of prosperity myself, one day. But we need to redesign prosperity, using innovation, new thinking and new technologies to render it sustainable.

And here's the essential break between lite green and bright green thinking: the reality is that the changes we must make are systemic changes. They involve large-scale transformations in the ways we plan our cities, manufacture goods, grow food, transport ourselves, and generate energy. They involve new international regulatory regimes, corporate strategies, industrial standards, tax systems and trading markets. If we want to change the world, we need to forge ourselves into the kinds of citizens who can effectively demand such things.

Dire practicality demands that we reject the privatization of responsibility. None of us can make this great transformation happen alone, and it removes pressure from our leaders to take needed steps when some suggest that the changes that need to be made in the world start with our personal choices. They don't.

This is a point Williams does a fair job of representing:

For some, the very debate over how much difference they should try to make in their own lives is a distraction. They despair of individual consumers being responsible for saving the earth from climate change and want to see action from political leaders around the world.

Can strategic consumption be one of the tactics we use? Of course. But the power most of us can actually exert at the cash register is extremely limited. Far, far more important are our public lives: our roles as citizens, as change agents within our businesses, as advocates in our communities, as investors and philanthropists, as opinion leaders in general (and if you're reading this site now, you are, however uncomfortable it may be, an opinion leader).

At the end of the Times piece, Williams quotes a pollster:

“We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.”

We all certainly hope he's right, though we're also very conscious here of both the limitations of polling and the gap between what people say that they want to see happen on the environment and what they end up doing -- the 4/40 gap. But we need a lot more than greener postures -- we need to change our thinking and the thinking of those around us. "Mindfulness" may not be anywhere near enough.

Over the next decade we need a real reckoning of the ecological limitations we face, a public commitment to redesign our civilization to produce widespread prosperity within those limits, collective visions of what such a sustainably prosperous (bright and green) future might look like and a whole lot of innovation on tools for building that future.

Because ultimately, it is only our progress towards building that future -- not our intentions, sympathies or displays of concern -- that matter. If we don't move fast enough, we'll simply be attending a global ecological collapse well-heeled and stylishly attired, watching the planet burn with a glass of organic champagne in hand.

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Thanks for clarifying the subtle point made in the article. Considering the Times is aimed at Yuppies this article came as a scold to them. The point of the small consumer vs. corporation is valid. We are chastised for not using CFB's but how many commercial buildings leave the lights on all night?

Posted by: Michael Janavel on 1 Jul 07

Perhaps we need to make the connection between investing blindly through 401Ks in corporations that suck the life out of the planet and our own responsibilities as inhabitants/caretakers. You shouldn't consider yourself green if you are still investing in Exxon and Haliburton for the biggest return.

Posted by: Kathy Semmes on 1 Jul 07

I don't understand how the NY Times misrepresented you (Alex). The Times article did indeed give the imperssion that you believe that people can *not* shop their way to sustainability and that far more systemic changes will be required.

In other words, although I find the Times' environmental reporting mediocre at best, they didn't put an inappropriate spin on your words in this case.

At worst, a person could construe that your chief point is "less consumption" rather than your actual core message, which is "systemic change", but IMHO the article as a whole covers the latter as well as can be expected from the Times.

I say this as someone deeply familiar with environmental and consumption issues but who is new to the WorldChanging site - i.e. with no prior impressions of Alex's opinions.

Posted by: Richard K on 1 Jul 07

Thanks for the comments.

Richard, let me clarify: I don't think Alex Williams misrepresented me so much as failed to acknowledge a pretty meaningful distinction: that that neither conscious consumption nor voluntary simplicity will lead us to sustainability. The implication in the article is pretty clearly that I think we need to reduce consumption as our path forward.

The distinction is an important one, at least within "the movement," and thus one I feel compelled to clarify.

That said, I actually do think that it's the best treatment of these issues I've yet seen in the Times or any other major American newspaper.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Jul 07

Alex, I agree that real improvements will occur only when systemic changes to our environmentally spendthrift ways are made.

I also believe that the efforts of individual consumers, however light, popularises and raises awareness of the issues. So long as this doesn't translate into an attitude of 'mission accomplished' when that unnecessary light is switched off, this should encourage greater agitation and support for systemic change.

What concerns me is that a push for systemic change will mean a return to central control, to the exclusion of individual effort. This is, to a large degree, how we got into this predicament in the first place. Nobody cared, because nobody heard what they were not told...

What I suppose I'm saying is that neither light nor bright green approaches should exclude the other.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 1 Jul 07

I believe that we are brainwashed from an early age to be consumers... we do not need MOST of the stuff that we have... we just consume out of some sort of misguided need to collect things. Why can't we just be happy with what we have... life is not made up of things and we cannot "take it with us"...

Posted by: Heidi on 2 Jul 07

Taking personal responsiblity for our actions does not mean that corporations and governments aren't responsible, and it's a personal decision to become more active politically in order to press for systemic change. All change starts with a personal decision. That said, I agree that sustainability is not going to happen because people purchase green merchandise. "Systemic" change --indeed any change-- begins with the individual. David Korten's book The Great Turning is a good reference, as is McKibben's Deep Economy.

Posted by: Ainslie Kincross on 2 Jul 07

I felt very mixed about the article and I totally understand your feelings on the article being 'one of the best' the NY Times has done. It was one of the most emailed articles yesterday according to the Times which shows interest. That said, NY Times readers are probably some of the biggest consumers in the country. Getting those readers to think (and act) about reducing consumption, making personal changes to reduce their footprint and to me most importantly, bring these eco-ideals into their workplace are significant steps that will lead to real solutions. As much as I respect Paul Hawken, I wanted to smack him with his 'Or ‘green’ fashion shows. Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence.” First of all, huh??? Secondly, if people were educated on the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry, they will be more inclined to buy from designers who are conscious and transparent about their production practices. Recycled, reused, repurposed and organic production is becoming more popular. I think that people are more inclined to keep a garment much longer that they feel connected to (be it pride for buying eco-friendly clothing or the connection to the people that made it) which ultimately can reduce some consumption. Apparel is a great way to showcase more than just the latest green fashion, it's a way to get people to think about their consumption, how and where things are produced and the impact. I feel that fashion can actually be a gateway for many people to begin to question every aspect of their lives, how we live them and why we make the choices that we do. 'Fashion' is accessible because it (literally) touches all of us.

Posted by: rob ganger on 2 Jul 07

Alex, you're depressing me. I suspect you're on the right path here, and I think your point about systemic change is getting ever clearer.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 2 Jul 07

Alex, you're depressing me. But that's life for ya. I suspect you're on the right path here, and I think your statement about systemic change is getting ever clearer.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 2 Jul 07

...and hey, at least the Times article wasn't written by Andy Revkin, in which case, to judge from the nature of his climate change reporting over the past couple of years, each of the genuinely insightful quotes would probably have been "balanced" by a response from a representative of the American Enterprise Institute or some such organization.

Posted by: Richard K. on 2 Jul 07

"I agree that we're not going to solve this problem by buying Priuses and changing our light bulbs. But driving hybrids and choosing better technology is still important in two respects. First, it makes a small contribution to reducing CO2. And second, when people make changes in their own lives, they are much more likely to become part of a critical mass of public opinion and to support the bigger policy changes that are going to be needed to really solve the problem."

--Al Gore

Congrats on the NYT article Alex.

Posted by: Tavita on 3 Jul 07

I am glad that above all and foremost the level of discussion in the environmental-influence movement has become more sophisticated - I believe that it is telling that people are coming to understand the truly complex and long-term nature of the challenges we all face. I believe that is one of the core issues that this article has brought up. One-liner slogans and feel-good local solutions may cause the word to be spread and understood and even 'taken-up' by a larger public. But in this, we risk giving the perception that the solutions are just a step away or simply require 'common sense' or that there is a certain lifestyle that is right for everyone (and if we would all just simply follow it [sounds almost religious, if you ask me]) that we are 'destined' to overcome.
There is hope, though when we use terms like 'systemic change' and 'holistic overhaul' [not sure where i saw this one].
We may all have to wake up to the fact that solutions lie in complexities that are simply not graspable by the public-at-large. When we talk about balancing environmental issues in the context of economics - many people's eyes will glaze over and then the old, familiar refrain of 'action now' comes out. How many people truly understand the tremendous break-thorugh that emission-trading and life-cycle-analysis has brought to us - it is all about the quantfying of environment-derived services (who would have thought it) - and how immensely complex it is - that not even the European Union has found an effective balance. There are literally dozens of post-doc programs around the world intensely researching this including MIT and Cambridge. And what of the ridiculously convoluted worlds of the psychology and sociology of scarcity-based scenarios and environmental adaptations - comparable to disaster-time rationing and upheaval?
This must seem frustrating to the grass-roots individuals that were so devoted and vocal about the need for action. But when you look at numbers like 2 to as much as 6 or more times the world's footprint for some cultures' lifestyles. And since every human deserves a lifestyle with qualities of life that go beyond simple shelter and survival - what of the earth, when 6+ billion start embarking and expecting this minimally-meaningful lifestyle? Can any rational human being believe that a north american or european can 'live' (not merely survive) indefinitely at a half to a quarter or even far less than current? This is the question which spawns need for deeply sophisticated 'systemic' re-directioning of our expectations. We are talking about such 'culture-altering' concepts such as 'closed loop' manufaturing and the genetic-modification of entire ecosystems.
And I believe that this article and the many leading up to it - have started us on a path to realizing the complexity and to perhaps even an attitude change about what type of 'action' we should reasonably expect.

Posted by: Jer on 4 Jul 07

While I am quite interested in the psychology of change and what will be required to propel the human race forward in a sustainable manner. I think CFLs and organic cotton, while perhaps not the solution, are certainly better choices. It is likely that every industry can make more ecologically sensitive products, so why would anyone ever discourage it? Isn't this part of the innovation process...

People, whether concerned with fashion or not, all have a fairly close relationship with clothing. Apparel is the product that we likely come in contact with the most. Yet, cotton uses 25% of the world's insecticides, which in the US alone equals 84 million pounds a year, before being tossed onto the waste heap, where it joins the 11 million tons of textiles that enter the waste system each year in the U.S.

As an average consumer, there is a limit to what one can do to establish policy, manufacture biofuels or invent carbon sequestration methods. Even in "...our roles as citizens, as change agents within our businesses, as advocates in our communities, as investors and philanthropists, as opinion leaders" we are limited, and to be honest, often too occupied to go there. However, being aware of how everyday consumption impacts the environment and trying to make better choices is within everyone's capabilities.

The better choice may not be organic raspberries flown in from Chile in January. You may need a good root vegetable instead, but for someone who is going to buy raspberries in January anyway...? How do you convince someone, teach them, that prosperity is not raspberries in January?

I understand the earlier sentiments regarding Hawken's comment on fashion. However, I've read a couple of his books and tend to agree with his ideas.

“Green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase,”

It is difficult to argue with that. However, with titles like Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce under his belt, he may have spawned a bit of green consumerism himself... a bit like inventing the robot that no longer listens to you.

Although professionally I have focused on sustainability in the apparel industry, I did not take offense as I understood his comment as more of a response to the recent media eco-frenzy and the marketing of "green" that often results in green washing and misinformation. It is the same frustration I feel when Hearst believes they have made some huge eco-initiative by printing inside all of their magazines a call to recycle them. Duh!

Anyway, agree or not, you have to love Paul's statement:

"Fashion is the deliberate inculcation of obsolescence."

On the other hand, for all of its frivolity, fashion certainly does capture attention. And you cannot teach someone something without getting their attention first.

Maybe we need to not just redesign, but also redefine prosperity.

"If we don't move fast enough, we'll simply be attending a global ecological collapse well-heeled and stylishly attired, watching the planet burn with a glass of organic champagne in hand."

walk or use mass transit... check
switched to green energy... check
recycle... check
buy organic & local often... check
reuse... check
CFLs screwed in... check
eco-garments in closet... check
advocate frequently... check
organic champagne on ice... check

Meet me on doomsday Alex, you bring the (recycled) glasses.

Blame it on cognitive dissonance... essentially, by making these small good choices we feel better about the stress inducing state of the world.

cognitive disonance

Let's just hope it is like smoking pot. You know, the fear that it will lead to shooting up heroin and becoming a criminal. Inversely, let's hope a little organic food here and a little CFL there will lead to solar panels and smaller homes which will lead to becoming the zealous change agents that prevent us from burning off of the face of the earth.

Posted by: jill danyelle on 5 Jul 07

ahhhh.. and then the level of discussion went primitive and simple again ... ho-hum

Posted by: Jer on 5 Jul 07

Thank you, Al Gore (above) for putting things in perspective.

I wholeheartedly agree, systemic change is vital. Much of today's "climate change info" was readily available to us 35 years ago. But we all know that Big Biz had a strong-hold on Washington and Mainstream Media, that most eco-sensitive, important info was squashed. Look at the "media progress" we've made -- at least now people and businesses are "openly addressing" the eco issues and their socio-politico-ramifications.

It's so easy to "dis" those who are trying to make more conscious consumer decisions. Personally speaking, my aim is to reach the kids, teens and first-time purchasers of all consumer goods. Those who are buying everything from toothpaste, deodorant, books, bikes, food, cars and yes, clothes, pet supplies and homes for the first time. If you've already invested in these goods, well good for you. Use what you have, and I hope it's healthy for you and the planet. But if you haven't already invested in a home, car, etc -- and want guidance on how to "do it right" -- by all means, people have the right to seek out resources and support designers, builders, and manufacturers who are really trying to help consumers make the right eco-decisions.

Why do so many supposedly smart people feel compelled to take such "extreme" points of view? There's a lot of grey areas in life...not everything is always so black and white. Our society has allowed fashion and "image" to rule. If you really look, there's a groundswell of designers who are taking the sustainable, cradle to cradle approach to manufacturing. Rome wasn't built in a day.

People are realizing the relationship between what they consume or invest in, and the health of both themselves and our planet. And yes, one home is better than 2 or 3. Less is more. And in a perfect world, there wouldn't be "greenwashing."

Posted by: Maureen on 11 Jul 07

Having once dropped out for twelve years from anything you might call "consumerism," I can say that it ain't so bad as long as you're around a lot of other people doing the same thing.

I, too, hope we (collectively, in the hundreds of millions) can make that choice to turn our backs on American-style consumption habits. I must admit, though, that I'm not convinced that enough of us will change deeply enough, and fast enough to slow the oncoming train.

I believe that Nature will force the hands of many of us to change, to abandon our homes, to lose our nice cars, to start from scratch as so many have had to do in the wake of Katrina.

Or we can read the bright writing on the wall and proactively make drastic changes in our lives to avoid the impact of climate change.

Posted by: Cliff on 12 Jul 07



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