Green consumerism can be described as either a highly democratic strategy to save the planet or exploitative marketing, depending on who you are talking to. As a strategy to save the planet it confronts the mass of consumers in industrialised countries and in effect says: "its up to you". Consumer demand has got us into the current mess, now it has to get us out again. Consumers must inform themselves about major environmental problems and then, by being cross-informed through product labelling, they should only select environmentally benign products -- and green life-styles to match their new consumption tastes.
The idea is that when awareness of environmental problems penetrates deeply enough into the community consciousness the purchasing power of the mass market will force all manufacturers to green both their products and their manufacturing processes -- on pain of being rejected in the market-place by green-leaning consumers. If all goes according to plan only those companies which adapt to the demand for greenness will survive. This approach to environmentalism is seen as being consistent with our existing mainstream culture. It allows the majority of people participation in the decision-making process by way of voting with their credit cards.
The other point of view on green consumerism sees the mass of consumers as being victimised and exploited by misleading advertising which appeals to highly moral, but ill-informed, instincts on environmental matters. It sees manufacturers, together with the high-priests of over-consumption, the advertising industry, adapting to environmental concerns as if they were merely a new fashion to squeeze the juice out of, before moving on.
The first point of view sees the environmental crisis as being the result of the quality of past mass consumption whereas the second view sees it as being caused by, not only the quality, but the volume of consumption as well. For the sceptic, green consumerism might even increase environmental damage by encouraging the consumption of new types of products under the misconception that they are environmentally benign. An even more jaded `environmental rationalist' might respond to the call for green consumerism with the retort that, `there's no such thing as a green lunch'.
The Roots of Green Consumerism
Green buyers, of course, have been around for a long time, but until recently they were only a discriminating few. The birth of the modern green consumer movement is usually dated at around the time the newly-released Brundtland Report was generating heightened awareness of the global ecological crisis. In 1987 a British company called The Body Shop won the UK "Company of the Year" Business Enterprise Awards. The Body Shop was then "riding high on a wave of green consumerism" as an outlet for "cruelty-free, minimally packaged, natural ingredient soaps". It was expanding at the rate of 20 new outlets a year and its extraordinary success helped to inspire several authors to quickly assemble popular guides to both green economics and green consuming. Amongst the most successful were the best-selling paperbacks The Green Consumers Guide  and Blueprint For A Green Planet.  (It was around this time that Margaret Thatcher declared herself green.) Green discrimination by consumers was thereafter quickly established as an essential ingredient of the business culture's plan to save the planet.
The Year of Shopping Greenly
As green consumerism took off in early 1989 the popular media fell over each other in the rush to inform the public about their new responsibility to consume with green discrimination. Numerous articles appeared featuring environmental/consumer experts with trolleys full of supermarket purchases offering advice on exactly what form this discrimination should take. Lists of supposedly good and bad products were presented. One entitled "The shopping list that saves the world." had Kate Short from the Total Environment Centre making the following recommendations;
1. Cleaning agents, with refills
2. Metal kitchen utensils: tongs, ice cream scoop
3. Glass containers for storage
4. Mild detergent
5. Waxed foodwrap -- instead of plastic
6. Metal garbage bin, bucket, dustpan
7. Straw broom -- not plastic
8. Natural fibre doormat
9. Pure washing powder, pure antiseptic
10. Tile cleaning; use steel wool with bicarb
11. Pump action carpet cleaners
12. Plain toilet paper, tissues -- not dyed
13. Roll-on deodorants -- instead of aerosol
14. Wooden coat-hangers -- better than plastic
15. Simply packaged stationary
16. Metal razor
17. Shave stick -- not aerosol shave cream
18. Toothpaste in tube -- instead of pump pack
With the green shopping year in full stride even The Bulletin, a magazine directed to the business community, got so caught up in the general enthusiasm they published an article with a front cover pointer announcing, "Shopping with a conscience. At last, a guide to who's behind the products Australians buy. Do you really want to give your money to companies that pollute, that make excessive profits, that experiment on animals, that mistreat their employees? Now you have the power ..."
Was there a genuine consumer revolution under way? Perhaps. A manufacturer of hamburger packaging called Ozone Packaging took out newspaper advertisements to advertise "The Hamburger That Saved The World. You don't have to change the way you live to do the right thing by the environment. Keep on eating hamburgers. But make sure they come in Ozone take-away packaging." Spurred into action McDonalds went one better advertising "Our Packaging Has Changed. It's A Wrap. .... McDonald's will continue to pursue the most environmentally sound operating practices and procedures possible to protect the global environment on which we all depend."
High level business conferences were organised to discuss the situation. One entitled "The Green Consumer Revolution" was endorsed by the Australian Marketing Institute and featured Professor David Bellamy from the Conservation Foundation, London as the environmental conscience. He was accompanied on the program by marketing experts speaking on subjects like, "How Australian Companies Can Benefit From Seizing The Environmental Initiative Now" and "Who Is The Green Consumer? Understanding The Real Impact Of The Green Attitude On Purchasing Behaviour", and "Pricing: Is The Environmentally Friendly Product Cost-Effective?"
In 1989 it sure looked as if the suits were dressing themselves in green. Or was it jungle camouflage?
Green Consumers? Or Conning Unassuming Greens?
It wasn't long, however, before the green sceptics began responding to all this market enthusiasm with articles of their own. Some of them concentrated on the environmental problem that would ensue from any increase in consumption, whether the increase was green or not.
The dilemma is that of consumption, the question of being: can we continue to consume goods at the present rate, even if we move to more environmentally acceptable products, and expect to stave off the impending environmental crisis? For it is runaway industrial growth that is poisoning the planet and consumption is its driving force.
Following closely behind this "nice try but it won't work" kind of scepticism was the more critical school of, `Beware the green con', which was a journalistic response to the green shopping guide articles of 1989. These counter-argument articles often presented a mirror image of the green-shopping enthusiasm of the year before. But this time they were listing consumer products which were falsely promoted as being green.
One influential article listed four pitfalls for the consumer trying to buy green. The first pitfall was the "Bit-Less-Trap. This is best illustrated by the CFC-free aerosol, which is marketed as environmentally-friendly, but which may contain other gases which threaten health or continue to damage the ozone layer. It is a bit less harmful than its predecessor, but still not sound. Unleaded petrol is another example. It lessens the problem of lead pollution in the atmosphere but then aromatic hydrocarbons are added to the unleaded petrol to keep up the octane level and, if the car doesn't have a catalytic converter attached to the exhaust, benzene is emitted, which is a known carcinogen.
The second pitfall was identified as the `Green Image Game'. A statement directed at marketing executives was cited which advised "By making products sound as if they are good for the environment, manufacturers can attract extra sales from around a third of the population".
The third pitfall was `Niche-marketing'. This is evident when a manufacturer produces one line of products specifically directed towards environmentally-aware consumers but at the same time produces comparable products in the old environmentally-unfriendly mode for the mainstream market.
The fourth pitfall was the `Cradle-to-Grave Trap' which was identified as a concern for the history of the whole product: the resources that are refined to make it, the pollution caused in manufacturing, the energy consumption, both in manufacturing and operation, and the product's life-span and disposal problems. This pitfall is the impossibility for the consumer to find all this out before every purchase. Who is the consumer supposed to ask about it, the sales assistant?
The imposition on consumers to make sound judgements on the environmental correctness of the products they buy, sometimes in the absence of any relevant information at all, and often under an avalanche of obviously false and misleading claims, led Greenpeace to conclude;
Navigating the misleading claims of opportunistic advertisers is just one of the difficulties facing the consumer intent on "ecologically correct" shopping. So complicated is the terrain, in fact, that what is becoming known as "green consuming" may prove to be nothing more than a costly diversion from the campaign to save the earth.
In the same article a spokesman for Mobil Chemical Company, manufacturer of Hefty degradable trash bags, was quoted as saying on the subject of recent enthusiasm for biodegradable packaging;
Degradable bags are not the answer to landfill crowding or littering..... Degradability is just a marketing tool.... We're talking out of both sides of our mouths when we want to sell bags. I don't think the average customer knows what degradability means. Customers don't care if it solves the solid-waste problem. It makes them feel good.
Business as Usual
By 1991 the green consumer revolution seemed to be over. In September of that year an article in the Good Weekend  was introduced with, "In just one year the great green ground swell has gone out with the tide. The shops still hold `green' products but many are only superficial, as is customer support. Whither now....".
The article observed that political polling the year before had identified the environment as the fourth most pressing issue for voters. This had dropped to tenth place a year later. In retailing, the Down to Earth range of consumer products had lost half their market share and "the environmental nasties -- plastic bags and disposable nappies -- have emerged from a marketing manager's worst nightmare almost unscathed".
Graphs were shown of polling results which proved "the string-bag lifestyle was tough and short". Between November 1989 and September 1990 affirmation to questions like, "Would you pay more for biodegradable plastics?" and "Would you purchase products marked environmentally friendly?", had approximately halved. It seems that the waning of green fashion, combined with a recession, had driven business back to normal. It was time to rewrite the scenario in which punctilious green consumers were going to dictate environmental terms to the manufacturers. It was now the turn of the advertisers to use their craft to segment the market and ruthlessly exploit residual consumer concerns about environmental matters.
Some recent advertisements for cars are good examples of the way some car manufacturers now like to identify their brands with environmental issues. The strategy is to confront new-car buyer resistance, that might be rooted in consumer guilt, with an appeal to environmental responsibility. A SAAB advertisement has a picture of an exhaust pipe with the caption, "A BREATH OF FRESH AIR". The text of the advertisement claims that "Our cars actually clean the air". It goes on to say that tests have shown that a SAAB's exhaust gases actually contain less hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide than the surrounding air in London traffic. "In other words, our car's engine removed these pollutants from the environment!" (This is of course ignoring other toxic, carcinogenic and greenhouse emissions like carbon monoxide, benzene and carbon dioxide). Nevertheless, how could a mildly guilt-afflicted yuppie, dreaming of a new status symbol, resist? And even if his friends didn't believe that he only drove it around to clean the air, at least he would know the truth.
Another full-page press advertisement, for Toyota this time, has a picture of an Australian beach scene. Several families are sheltering in patches of shade thrown by new Toyota Camrys hovering on the ends of beach umbrella poles. The headline reads, "TO PROTECT YOU AND THE OZONE LAYER, TOYOTA IS THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN CAR MAKER TO HAVE CFC-FREE AIR CONDITIONING." The text begins, "To help save the earth's delicate ozone layer, and protect everyone from the harmful effects of the sun's UV radiation, Toyota Camry ....".
In both of these advertisements, and many more as well, the objective is to make a resistant buyer feel more guilty for not buying than for buying. By making do with an older model, manufactured before the new environmentally-protective device was fitted, the reluctant consumer is actually manifesting a form of environmental irresponsibility.
There are guidelines in place that are supposed to protect consumers from blatant exploitation. In February, 1992 the Trade Practices Commission published guidelines for Environmental Claims for Marketing. There were already laws in place to control misleading and deceptive advertising and the new guidelines were intended to instruct marketers on how they could exploit green consumers without breaking the law. Humour was to be allowed "including attention-attracting exaggeration that is so obvious that most will quickly recognise it for what it is". (This might explain how Toyota and SAAB got away with their ads.)
Considering the hype attached to green consuming, as the business plan to save the planet, it is fairly surprising to read on further in these guidelines and discover unequivocal support for the green sceptic's position;
The use of terms such as `environmentally friendly' or `environmentally safe' should be avoided, as few, if any, products could justify a claim that they are totally free of adverse effects. Almost all products have some adverse impact on the environment in relation to their manufacture, packaging, use or disposal. Moreover, these terms are uninformative and give the consumer little basis for selecting between competing products. The use of `green' to describe a product also falls into this category and should be avoided.
But it is then even more astonishing to turn up a recently circulated Greenpeace Merchandise Catalogue as well as an Australian Conservation Foundation Catalogue of Green Gifts. Both organisations now seem to have put aside any earlier equivocation they may have had about green consumerism and have joined the market-place themselves. Not only that but both organisations also appear to be ignoring the guidelines quoted above. Greenpeace is advertising "ecologically sound homewares" while ACF is advertising "green" gifts.
The peak of mass enthusiasm for green consumerism has clearly passed. The market now seems to be segmented into the majority who tend to resist green marketing and a minority who tend to respond to it. If this is the case then there is little prospect for green consumerism succeeding as a method for solving the environmental crisis. The plan originally called for the mass consumer market to demand a complete restructuring of manufacturing along environmentally sound lines. A minority of consumers can never be expected to achieve this.
There are a number of conclusions that can now be drawn. The first is that the sceptics appear to have been right. The desire of competing manufacturers to gain advantage in the market apparently caused them to ruthlessly exploit the embryonic green conscience of consumers. This in turn soon led to widespread consumer scepticism and buyer resistance. But what does this say of the minority of consumers who still respond to green messages? Are they the biggest fools of the lot or are they the morally sound faithful few who have been let down by the majority? And what about the mainstream environment organisations? If green consumerism is now a failed approach to the environmental crisis why are they directly involving themselves in the consumer market? Is it just to exploit the fools? It certainly looks that way when they can even be observed using marketing techniques that appear to breach the Trade Practices Commission guidelines.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of green marketing is the flow of evidence indicating that some of the supposed green alternative products might do more damage than the ones they replaced. A case in point is "the mysterious stinking foam that has plagued the Adriatic for four years. This year Italian scientists think they have found the culprit: phosphate-free detergents that were supposed to protect the environment". It seems the zeolites and polycarboxylic acids added to `green' detergents cause even more environmental havoc than the old ungreen phosphate-containing detergents.
Perhaps the final updated statement about green consumerism is subliminally contained in a recent press advertisement for MasterCard. A picture of the earth-in-space is prominently featured with consumer goods like running shoes and a mobile phone melted onto the continents, and completely covering them. The headline reads "MasterCard introduces MasterValues. A whole world of savings." The message seems to be `Junk the planet, we've got some serious shopping to do.'
1 Sandy Irvine, 'Consuming Fashions? The Limits Of Green Consumerism,' The Ecologist, Vol. 19, No.3, 1989, p. 88.
4 J. Elkington and J. Hailes, The Green Consumers Guide, Gollancz, London, 1988.
5 J. Seymour and H. Girardet, Blueprint For a Green Planet, Dorling Kinnersley, 1988.
6 Ann Arnold, `The shopping list that saves the world', Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 1989, p. 15
7 Cover page, The Bulletin, August 1, 1989.
8 Sydney Morning Herald, August 23, 1989.
9 McDonald's advertising leaflet.
10 Advertisement, Financial Review, September 27, 1989, p. 29.
11 Ian Grayson, `Green Consumerism', Chain Reaction, Autumn 1989, p. 27.
12 Julliet Kellner, `Beware the green con', New Internationalist, January 1990, pp. 18-20.
14 Deborah Smith, `Fuelling the pollution debate', Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 1994.
15 Debra Lynn Dadd and Andre Carothers, `A Bill of Goods? Green Consuming in Perspective,' Greenpeace, Vol 15, No. 3, May/June 1990, p. 10.
16 Ibid., p. 11.
17 Deidre Macken, `It's Not Easy Being Green', Good Weekend, September 9, 1991, pp.37-42.
19 SAAB advertisement, Good Weekend, June 12, 1993, P 29.
20 Toyota Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, August 13, 1993, p. 9.
21 Trade Practices Commission, Environmental Claims for Marketing -- a Guideline, February 1992, p. 4.
22 Ibid., p. 5.
23 Greenpeace Merchandise Catalogue, Spring/Summer 1992/1993.
24 Australian Conservation Foundation, A Catalogue of Green Gifts, 1992.
25 Debora MacKenzie, `Green detergents `foul up' Italian coastline', New Scientist, April 17, 1993, p. 7.
26 MasterCard advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, March 14, 1994.
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