A recently released survey by the market research firm Mintel seems to agree with what every newspaper columnist and progressive politician has been saying: being green has hit the mainstream. The survey’s summary reports that the market for environmentally-friendly prodcuts was $200 billion last year and is growing rapidly, with 35 million Americans categorized as ‘True Greens’ who regularly buy green products.
But Worldchanging writer Joel Makower points out on his own blog, Two Steps Forward, that things aren’t quite as verdant as the survey makes it seem. Market research on this stuff has been happening for 20 years, and the numbers were just as encouraging then: he mentions a 1989 survey where nearly 90% of consumers reported that they were concerned about the impacts of their choices on the environment. And while $200 billion might seem like a lot, it’s a small fraction of our annual spending power. If green products were truly mainstream, they’d be comprising the majority of the things we buy – and we’re far from that point. Makower succintly sums it up with this statement: “two-thirds of Americans say they are buying green, but are spending barely more than a nickel per dollar doing so… how come we’re not shopping our talk?”
I can think of a few simple reasons off the top of my head. There’s the oft-bemoaned price barrier. There’s the un-green choices we all make as a matter of convenience. And there’s the simple lack of legitimately green products out there – why can’t I buy recycled plastic DVD cases? To a certain extent, these responses are all valid. As economies of scale kick in, and awareness continues to rise about the impacts of our consumption, we’ll see the market for green products continue to rise.
But these aren’t getting at the heart of the issue. The real answer to Makower’s question isn’t one that either he or Mintel is going to want to hear: as any environmentally-conscious citizen knows, the greenest thing to do is not to consume at all. What Mintel calls the “true greens” are turning their backs on the market altogether, finding ways of satisfying their needs without having to buy a shiny new whatever. Why won’t “green marketing” ever hit the mainstream? Because it’s a contradiction in terms.
Creative, resourceful, and thrifty, environmentally conscious consumers often aren’t consumers at all, but creators. When we’re not saving money and the environment by getting our stuff used, we’re excercising our imaginations and our power to network by making it ourselves.
I’m not naive enough to think that the rest of America will start using craigslist over Sam’s Club, or that any of us can get everything we need without having to buy new. Most people would rather just buy a bookshelf than download open-source instructions for making one. And we can’t have any semblance of a contemporary lifestyle without relying mass production. Lots of products are better left to be made in factories by experts – who’ll be keeping themselves busy for the next few decades figuring out how to do it all cradle-to-cradle. But as for the “green marketing rennaissance” that Makower’s holding out for? I’m hoping it’ll never happen.