Friday, March 31, 2006

Consumer Culture: What Does “Green” Mean?

Reading through some favorite blogs today I got to thinking, what do people really mean when they say “green”?

A post in Grist discusses a house purportedly built with “green” design that the writer suggests, at an unsustainable 5,500 square feet and plotted in a desolate location, is missing the point of “green” building.

A post on World Changing talks about how the entertainment media industry is “embracing green as their new favorite shade of cool.” But again the writer points out how “green” efforts fall short as, for instance, the May issue of Vanity Fair features eco-focused articles printed on 100% fresh tree paper.

So, what does “green” mean anyway? And is it even possible to do anything that is entirely “green?”

I think everyone agrees that “green” means “eco-conscious.” It’s “green” to recycle, to plant trees, to buy long-life lightbulbs, energy efficient appliances, and unbleached paper towels. It’s “green” to keep the thermostat down to 68 in the wintertime, to take public transportation, and not to litter. There is a huge and growing industry for “green” products, not to mention countless “green” blogs and websites where you can learn more. Heck, even Walmart is starting to offer organic foods which, besides being better for your body, are also produced using more eco-friendly methods (theoretically). And that’s all great for the environment. Theoretically.

But isn’t “green” more holistic than that? It’s not just about, say, buying organic beef when you crave a burger. It’s also about being conscientious of where that beef comes from, how the cow was raised, how the workers who tended the cow were treated and paid, how the cow was killed and how its meat was processed, how it was delivered to the store, how the store employees are treated and paid, who owns the store, and so on. But back up, can you even eat meat and still be “green?” What about animal slavery and the negative effects of red meat on the human body? Back to the drawing board…

It seems that the more people get hip to “green,” the more people’s “green” efforts undergo criticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it challenges us to question and reflect on what “green” means, and that kind of questioning is good for integrity. So “green” isn’t as simple as it seems at first. It is complicated and layered and elusive.

I for one don’t mind that “green” isn’t a black-and-white issue. In fact, maybe “green” is really an ideal, and as such is ultimately unattainable. Maybe we can only aspire to being “green,” but will never accomplish 100% “green” anything. Eco-tourism lodges in the Caribbean may be built to make a minimal impact on the environment, but you still have to take a (gas-guzzling, emissions-spewing) airplane to get there. We buy organic foods, but the brand may be owned by a major international company linked to poor labor policies and environmental negligence. A “green” products store opens, but its walls are lined with shelving made in exploited countries where workers are abused and ill-paid. Is there any way to win?

Maybe not. But maybe being perfectly “green” isn’t the point. What’s important is that we bear in mind the holistic nature of “green” and that we stay alert to our choices. We must not blindly buy “organic” milk without awareness that the USDA definition of “organic” allows factory farm cows to be penned up in crowded outdoor corrals with minimal access to grazing pastures while company owners collect the premiums we pay for said milk. And if that concerns us, it’s up to us to tell our Representatives that we’re not ok with that, because speaking up is as important, and maybe more important, than making “green” purchases.

Being kind to each other, speaking up to fight injustice, casting conscientious dollar votes, and treading lightly on the planet – this is my definition of “green.” Can we do all these things all the time? Probably not. Will some of our choices contradict others? Probably so. But at the end of the day, every dedicated effort counts.

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
- MK Gandhi
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photo by Seng Lin Saw


rena said...

i love these posts.

lee said...

wow nice!! thanks for writing this!

Mad said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post, Amy. Yeah, moving along the road, not always perfect, but with growing awareness, that is green for me!