Last Sunday marked Earth Day, an occasion meant to raise awareness of environmental issues. The holiday usually produces a number of environmental rallies, film screenings, recycling raids, and other eco-friendly activities. However, increased commercial attention paid to Earth Day over the past few years has unfortunately distorted its true meaning of solidarity with the planet.
The commercialization of Earth Day coincides with the growing popularity of “green” consumer products—all part of a burgeoning “conscious consumerism” trend. Vague labels like “green” and “Earth-friendly” attract the attention of customers who are willing to buy what they perceive as the more morally qualified product, even if it is significantly more expensive. However, such labels are not assigned or verified by any sustainability monitoring agency. Instead, they are simply clever marketing ploys by companies that capitalize on the guilt of consumers constantly barraged by the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, genetically modified organisms, and “unnatural” chemicals.
It seems that all a company must do to assuage a customer’s fears is plaster a product with some sort of leaf, tree, or recycling symbol, dubbed “green-washing.” Even bottled water has come to be accepted as eco-friendly so long as one recycles, an attitude that focuses consumer responsibility only on the disposal, not on the actual purchase of a product. In this case, consumers are dissociated from the severe environmental and social harms of water extraction, bottle manufacturing, and transportation. Many do not know, for instance, that communities near the refineries that produce PET, the type of plastic that water bottles are made of, have incredibly high rates of pollution, asthma, and cancer.
Even labels that are legitimately certified by an association, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification for sustainable fisheries, have been shown to employ lax criteria fraught with loopholes. Most recently, MSC approved a fishery which accidentally kills 35,000 sharks and hundreds of endangered sea turtles every year. With such dubious standards, it is not clear whether one should even take “properly certified” products seriously as sustainable alternatives.
Today, to be green is to be en vogue. While fads that promote environmental stewardship can obviously be positive, conscious consumerism has been manipulated to the point that it is superficial and illusory.
In this case, green-washing works to perpetuate—even justify—unsustainable patterns of unbridled consumption that exacerbate environmental degradation. If we want to truly celebrate the Earth, we must see past easy solutions by stepping out of the paradigm of blind consumption and into that of active sustainability.