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You Can't Buy Your Way to a Better Future

This article was written by Alex Steffen in March 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Epic%20Fashion.jpg BUY A BETTER FUTURE. That was the motto plastered everywhere at last weekend's EP!C sustainability expo in Vancouver. I was there to give a talk, and the talk went well, and we met a bunch of great people and saw some clever green products, but the whole time that phrase kept rattling around in my head, "Buy a better future."

It stuck in my craw, and here's why: You can't.

You cannot buy a better future, at least not the sort of bright green future we talk about here at Worldchanging. That sort of future -- a sustainable one, a future that itself has a future -- is not available for purchase: It doesn't yet exist. You can't find it on shelves, and you can't even order it up custom, no matter how much money you're willing to spend.

You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.

The reality is that only massive systemic changes offer us the chance to avoid the catastrophes looming ahead. Stuffed animals with recycled filler and natural exfoliating creams are not really leveraging much change in the system. Indeed, the vast majority of the green products around us are, at best, a form of advertisement for the idea that we should live sustainably, a sort of shopping therapy for the ecologically guilty.

There was a time when that was great -- back in the early days of the Viridian design movement, when we were out to strike a blow for the cause of proving that green and stylish could be synonymous. But that was a decade ago, when we knew less and could do less. Now, the point's been made. Even worse, the glut of green shopping opportunities is overshadowing the most basic message of all, which is that the most sustainable product is the one you never bought in the first place.

So, should we give up on trying to spend our money in ways that could do some good? Absolutely not, but we need to start getting better at buying in ways that make an impact. We need to begin to practice strategic consumption.

What makes consumption strategic? Multiplied leverage.

The ideal is to buy products that not only do their job more sustainably, but send market signals back through the economy that are likely to result in more meaningful systemic changes.

If we want to see these changes, we should pursue five strategies, listed in order of increasing importance:

1) Defaulting to green: When relatively equal alternatives exist, routinely choose the greener one, even if its impact is only minimally better (for instance, choose recycled toilet paper whenever possible). This may not produce massive change, but it helps solidify the gains of greener products. We ought to be working to put obviously dumb products -- like bleached, pulped-forest toilet paper or toxic chemical household cleaning solutions -- out of business. That'd be a pretty clear market signal.

2) Lengthening our time horizons: A great number of costlier green products are smart investments when viewed from the perspective of long-term cost. This is true of everything from more efficient home appliances (which can pay for themselves through energy savings) to low-flow shower heads. These are big-ticket items, requiring substantial industrial investment to manufacture. Buying them represents a wise investment and speeds up the process of higher standards being more widely adopted, but it also requires spending more up front -- sometimes a lot more. (It'd be easier if we all adopted the Japanese approach of requiring today's best performance levels to be the minimum allowable a few years hence.) This kind of sustainable consumption makes good sense.

3) Greening our geeks: One of the best ways to pursue sustainable innovation is to have millions of people working to make their special areas of expertise and passion as green and socially responsible as possible. Gardeners, for instance, can plant native species, harvest rainwater, build rain gardens and create backyard habitat, transforming what once was lawn into an oasis of living creatures and good sense. The same thing's true for home improvement buffs, amateur chefs, travel hounds and all sorts of other enthusiasts: We can take the thing we love and make it better, something that's not only satisfying to do, but satisfying in its consequences. As Bruce says:

I don't believe in "average people" doing anything. People ought to support mitigation and adaptation within their own line of work, no matter how un-average that is. I mean: if you're butcher, baker, ballerina, banker, or a plumber, envision yourself as the post-fossil-fuel version of yourself, and get right after it.

This is true even, perhaps especially, for pursuits which are now incredibly destructive. I'd love to see a bunch of NASCAR enthusiasts and amateur mechanics put their brains together and prove that motor sports have a carbon-neutral future by assembling some really smoking fast cars that get, say, 330 miles per gallon. I'd love to see an X-Prize motivate teams of engineers around the world to find a greener alternative to current jet engine design. Heck, I'd love to see some golfers green golf.

4) Being truly strategic in our consumption: A whole different level of committed consumption comes into play when consumers send major market signals by choosing to make big purchases that may not, strictly speaking, be rational, because we are confident that it will help shift an industry's practices. Hybrids, organics, green power, ecotourism are all prominent examples, but let's push even further. Electronics are a gigantic social and environmental problem: E-waste creates horrific social and environmental problems all around the world. Better standards are starting to emerge, including the EPEAT standard here in the U.S. (which aims to become the LEED of electronics), but progress has been slow -- for instance, no product has yet met EPEAT's Gold standard.

But sooner (hopefully) than later, a laptop will become the first to earn that gold star, and when that happens, a good strategic consumption move would be to make sure that laptop (assuming it works well) is a commercial success, by buying it ourselves, talking it up online, at work and in our community, and generally doing everything we can to see that laptop manufacturers everywhere see it as a profitable trendsetter, not a failed experiment. It may not make great economic sense for us to take that risk on a new product, but it makes terrific sense if we want to be strategic consumers and we can afford it.

5) Tilting the playing field: If we really want to make big change happen, we've got to engage with movements designed to shift institutional behavior. We've got to lobby for better regulatory policies, investment in responsible companies, boycott bad players, destroy or reinforce companies' brands and influence the media. We can't achieve these results single-handedly, but we can work together with others who share our values to exert enormous leverage on the marketplace. And, paradoxically, that may end up being the most surprising result of strategic consumption: Shopping, that traditionally most narcissistic of consumer actions, may actually lead us to civically reengage.

Front Image: The FLOW Institute

Creative Commons Photo Credit (inside image)

Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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