Food · Literature

Green Washed: By focusing on “buying green,” have Americans lost the big picture?

My review of Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, by Kendra Pierre-Louis (Ig Publishing, April 2012)

“Our slim, trim and sleek new box is 10% smaller than before! The paper savings alone equal over 1000 trees per year and energy savings equal to heating about 38 homes per year!” –Organic [USDA certified] FlaxPlus Granola, from Nature’s Path, $3.99

“Formulated to be safe for your family and the environment, this product does not create harsh fumes and is a non-toxic, biodegradable alternative to conventional petroleum-based cleaners.” – Seventh Generation Natural Glass and Surface Cleaner, $5.99

Looking through my kitchen cabinets, I found the above products, labeled to assure me of their “sustainability.” It is more and more common in liberal homes and businesses that target progressively-minded customers to find such self-professed “green” products. And using these goods can seem like a smart choice. On the one hand, they cost significantly more than regular versions do; on the other hand, they often refrain from using ingredients that harm the environment and my body, and they sometimes taste or smell better, too.

But while using products that claim to be green may provide small,

Kendra Pierre-Louis

short-term benefits those of us who can afford to buy them, it’s a problem if, because we have such products on our shelves at home, we are patting our own backs and turning a blind eye to the structural and systemic nature of our global environmental crisis. Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet (to come out with Ig Publishing in April 2012) is the first book by Kendra Pierre-Louis, the sustainable development editor for, a website that reports on sustainability and social responsibility in business. Pierre-Louis holds a master’s in sustainable development from SIT in Vermont. In the book, she argues against the notion that buying green products or, in a parallel vein, turning to renewable energy sources like biofuel, are sufficient responses to the destruction that industrialization and hyper-consumption have brought upon our natural resources.

Buying “green” may make us feel better, explains Pierre-Louis, but in fact, the only way we can stave off resource depletion and destruction of our ecosystems is by consuming less–across the board.

Rigorously researched, Green Washed describes how businesses have been held unaccountable for long enough in their environmental practices that systems and structures that harm the planet are already deeply embedded in every industry we rely on. “Green washing” is an idea that typically refers to instances where companies who practice unsustainable business try to redeem their bad reputations with “corporate social responsibility” campaigns. An example of this would be the Chevron “I agree” ads heavily placed in widely-read magazines, which say things like, “Oil companies should put their profits to good use.” (The Yes Men did a parody campaign which aired ads on a website that appeared to be the official campaign site, saying, “Oil companies should clean up their messes: We agree.”) In her book, Pierre-Louis expands the notion of green washing to expose how corporate abuse of the environment and American hyper-consumerism go unchecked—as long as people think they are buying “green” products. Again and again, she points out how this view can be misleading, and how it is based on an individualist, consumerist cultural norm: “The rise of green industries ties neatly into our attitudes as a nation, as we increasingly define ourselves not by what we do (employment or hobbies), or who we are connected to (friends, families), but by what we buy.”

Green Washed is a study of the most current environmental problems viewed through the lens of consumption: apparel, food, health and beauty aids, automobiles, water, and buildings; in the manner of an investigative journalist, Pierre-Louis scours the available literature and illuminates the hidden health and environmental costs of products that appear to be eco-friendly. The main problem, overall, is that no matter how a product is manufactured or marketed, Americans are simply consuming too much of everything—resulting in pointless waste, excessive transportation costs, and over-usage of scarce energy. “We use a tremendous amount of resources, and do irreparable harm to the planet, to fabricate stuff that exists for only the briefest moment before we simply throw it out,” she writes.

Even alternative forms of energy, such as biofuel or wind farming, have their downfalls, Pierre-Louis skillfully demonstrates: biofuel relies on pesticide and fertilizer-heavy monoculture of corn, which depletes soil; according to a 2005 study by two professors from Cornell and Berkeley, manufacturing ethanol requires so much energy that it may even result in a net energy loss. Solar power is similarly too-often viewed through a rose—or “green,” we should say—colored lens: manufacturing solar panels releases sulfur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas, and furthermore, we are nowhere near a precedent of having made solar arrays large enough to produce even a fraction of what the planet’s larger cities consume. Energy efficiency is a myth; what we desperately need is energy conservation. “In short,” writes Pierre-Louis, “alternative energy can meet our needs, but not our greed.”

And a robust critique of modern society’s greed is at the center of Green Washed. As Pierre-Louis points out, the United States has become, and grown to see itself as, a nation of consumers—“We spend up to a quarter of our leisure time, nearly an hour a day, shopping. On vacation, our preferred activity is to shop some more.” A movement has been growing to “downsize” material possessions across the country, Pierre-Louis notes, citing the growing Tiny House fad as an example. Similarly, she writes that, in a “truly sustainable world…stuff would return to being just stuff and not symbolic ways of filling a void of low-self worth, of ego.”

Pierre-Louis then poses “the obvious question,” of why Americans are not dealing with their consumption problem. And she concludes that it is “because our economy won’t let us”—a somewhat disappointing answer. The economy, of course, exists as a complex web of ever-changing policies and economic behaviors. Pierre-Louis may be right to suggest that Americans shop to fill a “void of low-self worth, of ego,” but if so, readers may want to know where that void comes from—besides the abstract “economy”–and what can be done about it. Later in the book, fortunately, Pierre-Louis makes her answer much clearer.

Pierre-Louis provides exhaustive data to argue that shopping green and looking to renewable energy sources will never be enough if we don’t stop consuming at an excessive rate—and fortunately, she goes one step further, to explain how that might happen. The problem has to do with the idea, so ingrained in our national discourse, that economic growth is the key to success. (Mitt Romney has been stumping recently on the platform that the way forward for America is to focus on economic growth.) Growth, of course, requires more materials and more energy—both of which are, more and more, in short supply on our planet. “The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA),” an independent organization with twenty-eight member organizations, founded in response to the 1973-74 oil crisis, “predicts that oil is rapidly running out with global production set to peak within the next ten years,” reports Pierre-Louis. Growth also depends on a particular form of economic behavior, in which consumption is relentless—which happens when people buy cheaply-made goods that must be disposed of quickly, adding to our already-towering landfills.

The growth thesis is furthermore predicated on the idea that a nation’s well-being is somehow indicated by its GDP. But Pierre-Louis explains that the inventor of the GDP, Russian-American economist Simon Smith Kuznets, stated that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” As an antidote to the growth paradigm, Pierre-Louis leans on an idea first coined in Bhutan in 1972, Gross National Happiness, which holds four pillars to be the correct indexes of a society’s wellness: “economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.” Expounding on this, Pierre-Louis proposes that our society would benefit from working toward a “happiness economy,” where relationships, physical and spiritual health, and community-building take precedence over income. Americans may have increased their earnings in the decades following World War II, she points out, but we also work more than any other nation in the world—“137 hours per year more than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers,” according to the International Labour Organization. Yet, economist Richard Easterlin has explained, once a certain level of affluence is achieved, more money does not equal increased levels of happiness. In fact, it may be quite the contrary, Pierre-Louis argues: “When we work so many hours that we barely know our family members, never mind our neighbors, we’ve lost something.”

There are actionable ways to move toward a sustainable economy that puts happiness over profits, and Pierre-Louis puts forth a few. The first is simply getting together, in an organized fashion, and sharing our frustrations—“Talk about your money problems, about your health, about your fears for the future,” she advises. Anyone who spent time in Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Square) last fall would have seen a lot of these kinds of discussions going on; people had been holding in the anxieties and fears that were generated by the recession.

Beyond the idea of the happiness economy, and perhaps in a more radical move, Pierre-Louis advocates for the creation of a robust “shadow” or parallel economy, with community and sustainability as cornerstone, in which businesses work together to use sustainably-sourced ingredients and products, and communities patronize those businesses rather than anonymous conglomerates (who often have unfair labor practices) like Wal-Mart. Residents of many parts of the country (Portland, Oregon; Bellingham, Washington; and Brooklyn, New York come to mind) have been working to build local economy infrastructures for years by sharing resources and knowledge; Ithaca’s “Hours” experiment and the global Transition Town network are other examples of efforts to subvert the market and its massive industrial offerings. Green Washed shows how relying on existing market choices, however much it may feel good to buy green products, is not enough to deal with the scale of our environmental, social, and economic problems—which are, in the picture Pierre-Louis paints, inextricably intertwined as symptoms of our overconsumption problem. “We have to stop hoping others will lead us out of this mess,” she affirms, “and start leading the way out ourselves.”

One thought on “Green Washed: By focusing on “buying green,” have Americans lost the big picture?

  1. Ack. As Bruce Sterling says, the only truly sustainable human being is a dead human being. In order to avoid this reductio ad absurdum, does Pierre-Louis provide an estimate for the carrying capacity of the planet, ie, x billion people consuming however much energy? While I agree with many of her particulars, I’m afraid this turns into one of those hair-shirt arguments that will make people really not give a shit about sustainability.

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