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Can ‘buying green’ save the planet?

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Does changing your personal behavior and ‘buying green’ make any difference at all?

By Aran Seaman Posted Apr 22, 2010

buying-green In Sharon Begley’s article for NEWSWEEK: “On the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, Let’s … Go Shopping!”, published April 21st, 2010, she makes the argument that “buying green and changing personal behavior won’t save the planet”, and claims that this mindset is in fact detrimental to the entire environmental movement.

She states that all major victories in the environmental movement have come from global treaties and national legislation, and that individual actions and “buying green” have acted as a form of appeasement “distracting us from the hard work needed to remake the world’s energy system”. The key point made is that “consumption as politics bypasses pushing for action that might bring substantive shifts, such as meaningful controls on greenhouse gas emissions, comprehensive programs that sustain holistic farming and food, support for establishing and distributing solar, wind, geothermal, and tide-based energy.”

The article comes off as pretty negative, depressing, and bleak for the average reader. Is she saying that our individual actions add up to nothing? That we are powerless to create positive change? That buying green is futile? To a degree, it’s true. You can’t just buy a better future – individual actions that affect you alone are not going to change the world. But what will change the world is when those individual actions spread, and inspire others to do the same (and more). Your small individual actions shape who you are and what you believe in. By using a reusable shopping bag, recycling, buying sustainable product alternatives, and trying to change your life in small baby steps, progress can be made rapidly. Like a snowball effect, once you start down the path of leading “an examined life”, other actions come quickly: volunteering, writing the government, and joining organizations that represent your values.

“Buying green” is a small part of the puzzle – but may very well be an integral first step in converting mall-addicted-consumeristas into conservationists.

“Buying green” is a small part of the puzzle – but may very well be an integral first step in converting mall-addicted-consumeristas into conservationists. Doing anything progressive is better than not doing anything at all, and those initial actions may get the ball rolling for more significant consequent actions. Every individual action you take pushes you in the direction of a larger collective. Although the water runs slower at the edges of a river, it becomes deep and swift in the middle. Once an individual with their small consumer actions begins to wade into the river of sustainability they may find themselves pulled into a current of collective movement that is rapidly changing the world as we know it: from sustainable LEED certified development to government initiatives, social entrepreneurs & eco-preneurs, humanitarian & environmental organizations, and grassroots community initiatives.

Changing our personal behavior is the most fundamental thing that needs to happen before we can change the world.

It’s quite easy to say that the only major improvements in this world have come from “Global Treaties” and “National Legislation” – but how were those treaties ratified? How did that legislation pass? All these things happened because of the collective actions of small groups of like-minded individuals. So the question is, where are your individual actions taking you? Are you stopping at just using a reusable shopping bag, or are you trying alternative transportation as well? Are you examining your energy consumption to see how you can be less wasteful? Are you looking into how you can volunteer, or how you can write to your government and lobby for progressive change? We live in a democracy where our reality is shaped by the individual actions of millions of people. Changing our personal behavior is the most fundamental thing that needs to happen before we can change the world.

Can ‘buying green’ save the planet? No, but it is a first step. The important question is what are your next steps going to be?

Posted in Connect with Nature Tags , , ,
  • Anna

    Inspiring article! And very timely for Earth Day. I commit to think of a new, higher way to serve the Planet.

  • JJ

    Change on the individual level is essential, and the only way significant global change will happen.

  • Changing personal behavior and making a stand on what you belief could really add in saving the planet. What is really effective is to help educate the people what is happening to Earth. Global warming and Climate change is really a big issue. Happy Earth day.

  • Greener Every Day

    I think you've got it almost exactly right: Changing our personal choices is integral to changing the world. And buying green is just one among many personal choices that "may get the ball rolling" towards broader change. But it also may not. It is very easy for those of us who are immersed in rampant consumerism to believe that a different sort of consumerism can solve our bigger, social and environmental problems. It can not.

    Consumerism itself is a major part of the problem. To the extent that buying differently helps to raise awareness of the need for us as a society to shift away from consumerism that's a very good thing. To the extent that buying green simply assuages feelings of guilt without prompting a radical reduction in consumerism, it's not such a good thing.

    If we're trying to effective broader change, there are far more important choices we need to make–like the ones you refer to at the end of your piece. Choices like volunteering and becoming politically active. And in the meantime we can all buy a lot less. And, oh yeah, when we do buy, we can support companies and products that mesh with our commitment to sustainability.

    If you're interested: I've written several times on this issue on my blog. Here are a couple of links:

  • Organic Mom

    Buying Green can make all the difference! I only buy green produce and cotton products! If we can each convince ten people to do the same and get them to convince 10 more….and so on. It is truly a grassroots mission, don't you think?

  • Anu Chandwani

    Agree with Vanesa7, its about personal behavior that will eventually lead to small business behavior and to the large cos. behavior and eventually countries’ behavior that will bring a change to what has happened to earth. If everyone of us takes a pledge that they will make effort to go and stay green there will no need for corporations to create products that harm the earth while producing and also when discarded. Poly bags are great example, they cause so much carbon release when produced and take years to decay in landfills. If all people stop using poly bags walmarts need not carry them anymore. We should be willing to pay 5 cents for a hand made paper bag than poly bags. Same goes for home recycling.

    Hopefully the change will come from people to corporation to countries and we all will be able to breath easy on our mother earth.


    • apc

      i agree with u anu
      as the famous quote goes EVERY PENNY COUNTS the same way little effort from all of us will certainly make a diff. Its not just not using a poly bag when u could avoid it, its a habit what counts. its very easy to use sticky notes just to make a smiley but its tough to make a habit to keep unused back of used paper and the list goes on.

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