Beyond Green Consumerism

by Wendy Philleo   |   May 11, 2011


What we buy matters. But what we do matters more.

At times, it seems like we focus on what we can buy to make a difference: we "buy green," and many businesses and nonprofits have cropped up to help us make those decisions. But I also worry that this keeps us from taking more action collectively in our communities and nationally to demand changes to government and corporate policies that enable irresponsible products and pollution.

When yet another article came out recently warning consumers about the dangers of BPA in the linings of food cans, I wrote on a friend’s Facebook page that I was most concerned about canned tomatoes because they rated highly for BPA. In my home, we cook a lot of homemade spaghetti sauce and chili, and tomatoes are the product that is often hardest to find a substitute for. (With beans, it’s easy to use dried alternatives with a little planning). We began a conversation with others on FB about how this provided a perfect business opportunity for someone to come into this space and alleviate our concern. 

But I also realized that if someone does come into this space and offers an alternative that better protects my family, I may not advocate as hard for change. 

I would like to think that I would, but I’m a busy person, like many of us are. For me, environmental action shouldn’t just be about protecting my family, but about protecting our broader public health, natural resources, and the health of ecosystems. If I can find easy alternatives to most of my canned goods, then how likely am I to advocate strongly for government regulations and advocacy to change food production patterns? To be honest, sometimes it’s just a lot easier to go shopping than to take political action.

This is the premise put forth by UC Santa Cruz Professor Andrew Szasz in Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves. Essentially, the more we focus on protecting ourselves and our families through buying green, the risk is that we become less likely to act to protect the public commons: water, nature, and the food supply.

I don’t like to admit it, but I think Szasz has a point. I certainly feel strongly about the bigger picture, but I also get caught up in “buying green” and thinking that this will solve our problems. If I didn’t have a water filter, wouldn’t I be more sensitive and alert to possible pollution in our water supply? 

So we need to flex our collective purchasing power, no doubt about it. But we also need to move beyond shopping as an answer. Szasz's book reminded me of the limits of individual self-protection and the need for more collective action that connects and empowers people. It’s the social interaction, a part of being involved in a broader movement, that leads to meaningful and fundamental change.

So yes, buying green matters—as long it’s not our first step or our last. Let’s first think about not buying at all—but instead sharing, borrowing, or renting, and then taking action with a neighbor or two (or three, or hundreds, or thousands). It’s what we do beyond that green purchase that matters the most. (See New Dream's Collaborative Communities program for more steps you can take!)

So—I’ll keep looking for glass-jarred tomatoes and maybe even learn how to can my own. But I’ll also search out more ways to make my voice heard, to buy less, to connect with my neighbors more, and to gather more voices to sound collective concerns about consumer safety and environmental degradation.