The Green (Un)market

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Green (Un)market

  1. Shelley Bridge says:

    Hi Adam-
    Your mom sent me a link to your site. Long story but we have a mutual friend, Lisa Hartman, who told us what you are doing and we have a 16 year old son who is a Junior at East and starting to explore his options. I have posted my husband, Dennis Brachfeld’s, web site above rather than mine. He has been working in energy conservation here in Denver since he was a student in the School of Construction Management at D.U. His company has retrofitted around 40,000 homes here in Denver and Boulder. I thought you might want to check out his site. I think he will enjoy yours. Maybe you would want to exchange links if that is appropriate.

  2. Historicus says:

    Well put my friend, the topic of the market deserves emphatic attention. There seems today to be a growing constituency with the “natural capital” coterie headed by green entrepreneur Paul Hawken who has popularized the view that true capitalism, as opposed to the capitalism we have known thus far, would incorporate the environment expressed as natural capital and by internalizing the external diseconomy of environmental degradation the natural world would be saved. To begin, these “green economists” work from a pivotal premise that the market is a perfectly healthy and functional mechanism. Now, without killing a fly with a sledgehammer, let me explain simply why “sustainable development” “natural capital” and “green consumption” offer no real solution to the greater inherent contradictions of capitalism and are in fact prospectively more deleterious to the environment than the capitalism we have know thus far.

    The market is the nexus of capitalism, the prime mover of scarce goods. It is the facilitator of exchange and it is invariably a characteristic of capitalism. Markets are not distinct to capitalism, and I believe that market socialism is in fact the most attainable rational system at this point in time, however markets are necessarily the median of exchange in a capitalist economy. For capitalism to function, that is for a capitalist economy to continue to reproduce itself, several conditions must be satisfied. There must be a legal system to protect and enforce private property rights. There must be a substantial supply of wageworkers, a reserve army of labor if you will. Capitalists must be able to generate profits in production, requiring reliable and reproducible mechanisms of labor management. Basic decisions regarding production and distribution must be mediated by markets, requiring money as a median of exchange and measurer of exchange-value and there must be a steady ideological enforcement of individualism. With this understood let me turn to the significance of the market in regards to the environment.

    Markets are the median of exchange denominated by money that pays for use-values (tangible commodities) and now days mostly exchange-values (stocks, bonds, futures, options, etc.). In capitalism the market is assumed to be the most efficient organization of society, guided by an “invisible hand” it will account for all that is produced and distribute it the most rational way. It functions on a presupposed notion that humans are coldly calculating, egoistic, atomistic, individuals concerned only with their personal well-being. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no society, only individuals.” In economics we call the theoretical prototype of the human homo economicus, in philosophy we call him a psychological egoist and hedonist. Now, the market is assumed to be the most efficient and rational means of allocation of what is produced in an economy, of course it would be absurd to think it could account for all that is produced. If for say a woman petitioned for weeks to get a new school built in her neighborhood and succeeded, this would be called an external economy, for her labor was unaccounted for in the market, she was paid nothing for her diligent work, yet the economy and the neighborhood benefited. Conversely, if a new factory needed to be built and a hundred acres of forest needed to be cleared for the construction and the ensuing pollution and lack of oxygen harmed the local population, this would be referred to as an external diseconomy.

    Now, as people today begin to realize that we are become more and more subject to the external diseconomies of environmental degradation they have been ostensibly changing the qualitative form of their consumption, but have not been changing the quantitative form of consumption. As you rightfully point out, if people were genuinely concerned with our rate of destruction they would reduce consumption all together. Obviously people are “buying” in to belief that the current ecological debacle is the result of the form rather then the purpose of production and consumption. Neither consumers nor producers are willing to give up their going rate; we economists would refer to this as being downwardly sticky, or downwardly inelastic. That is to say that in capitalism when more investment outlets provide capitalists with reason to produce, they will produce more than proportionately to the existing outlets, and hence will continue to find themselves in precarious positions of overproduction. Likewise, when consumers are able to spend more due to a higher wage or more likely a lax monetary policy allowing for higher injections of credit, they are going to spend at a relatively rapid rate, at times disproportionately to how much they can in real terms. As the crisis of overproduction sets in and the economy begins to stagnate neither producers nor consumers are ready to cut back the necessary amount.

    This crisis of upwardly elastic habits in both consumers and producers will indefinitely continue regardless of the form commodities take. Capitalists produce whatever yields high profits, whether it is guns, rubber ducks, or solar panels and granola. Just because there exists a moral opprobrium towards inorganic goods in the middle class today does not mean that the ecological crisis is anywhere near a solution. People seem generally aware these days that the environment is changing and subsequently they are changing their consumer tastes, they may not, and most likely do not know the real reasons behind the ecological vicissitude, but what is certain is that business is taking advantage of this change.

    It is obvious that people today have a modicum of concern for the environment, though usually superficial, there is at least a scent of green sentiment. However, people don’t seem ready to genuinely change their habits, and most importantly the ruling class is certainly far from changing their habits. So what would one expect but to see a growing industry of sustainability punctuated by claptrap theories like Hawkens. People want to have their environmental cake and eat their capitalism too. So we should expect to see theories attempting to solve core problems by fumbling around with peripheral issues. One common argument puts forth the idea that if the environment were accounted for in the market, that is if we internalized the external diseconomy, the ecological problem would be solved through the profitability of the environment to capitalists on the market. If we simply denominated the environment with exchange-values on the market it would follow that it would be in the interests of business to sustain and encourage a healthy environment. Hello!! It is in the interests of business to sustain and encourage a healthy environment, ITS OUR MEANS OF LIFE. But, capitalism is obstinately stuck in its short-term profitability schedules to see the long-term consequences, and the reality of subjecting the environment to the market would have sever ecological drawbacks. Just imagine the consequences of a market-oriented environment, rainforests would be inefficient and would be cleared to be replaced with predictable quick growth evergreens, the sea would be bought and sold by the same people who brought us the Asian Financial Crisis of ’97 and the stock market crash of ’01. If the environment were made profitable and was subjected to speculation and privatization, everything would suffer. One needn’t look further than when water was privatized in Bolivia and it became illegal for people to collect rainwater.

    Well in conclusion, a green market is not necessarily a contradiction in terms, however within a capitalist economy it certainly is. The growing trend of greener living is a wonderful and necessary development if humans are expecting to exists much longer, however the way their going about it is fundamentally flawed, they are trying to fit a square block in a circular hole. However “green” capitalism can pretend to be, it will never be sustainable. There exist inherent contradictions in the organization of production and distribution that will continue to undermine human existence. I only hope the new sentiment of sustainability begins a dialectical relationship and grows into something truly sustainable.

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