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Green shopping

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

What is the role of shopping in meeting the challenge of climate change?

Today I came across a note on the West of England Climate Change project, written by Ian Preston from the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), and disseminated as a link in Chris Rose‘s Newsletter. The West of England Climate Change project put together a model home exhibition for use in shopping centres in Bristol, highlighting innovative ways to save electricity – from buying the latest Brabantia clothes-line, to filling the dishwasher before using it, or donating your used mobile phone to Oxfam.

The CSE write on their website: “The 100 Ideas House is kind of ‘show-home’ – a life-sized model of the interior of an attractive modern home that shows how easy it is to incorporate small energy-saving measures into a normal and aspirational lifestyle…As well as being comfortable and stylish, the house also incorporates 50 energy-saving measures that are within everyone’s reach and that do not detract from the cool look… The 100 Ideas House will show our audience that living more sustainably does not require huge sacrifices and that they can make a difference without changing who they are.”

Ian Preston writes: “George Monbiot and others are adamant that you ‘can’t save the world by shopping’ and like many of the ‘dark green’ movement they have a vision of a future society made up of people acting, thinking and behaving like them! To reach a wider audience we shouldn’t simply dismiss the role of shopping as George Monbiot has done. Informed shopping has a role to play. For example, a Nintendo Wii is both an aspirational product and uses a tenth of the energy of a Play Station 3 or an Xbox 360.”

Is this true? Or is ‘green consumption’ a dangerous distraction?

Material goods contribute importantly to the construction of our self-identities, acquiring importance that extends beyond their mere practical utility. So, for example, our cars are not simply things that enable us to get from A to B quickly and relatively comfortably. Rather, the cars we drive have addition ‘symbolic’ meaning: they represent some part of who we consider ourselves to be. As Tim Jackson puts it, in the The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Consumption, in a modern Western society, “the symbolic project of the self is mainly pursued through the consumption of material goods imbued with symbolic meaning.”

“No purely functional account of material consumption is going to be able to deliver a robust model for influencing consumption patterns or changing consumer behaviour: because functionality is not the point (or at least not exclusively the point). We consume not just to nourish ourselves or protect ourselves from the elements or maintain a living. We consume in order to identify ourselves with a social group, to position ourselves within that group, to distinguish ourselves with respect to other social groups, to communicate allegiance to certain ideals. To differentiate ourselves from certain other ideals. We consume in order to communicate. Through consumption we communicate not only with each other but with our past, with our ideals, with our fears and with our aspirations. We consume in pursuit of meaning.”

In itself, this does not necessarily pull the rug from beneath ‘green consumption’ as a means of addressing the environmental crisis: we can work to make greener products and services more socially desirable. But the critical question, for the role of green consumption as a means of addressing the environmental crisis, is whether this entails that we must necessarily continue to consume more, or whether, in the course of consuming ‘to communicate allegiance to certain ideals’, this might actually entail us consuming less, or making do with what we have.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that our preoccupation with material objects, as mechanisms for us to establish meaning, necessarily entails that we will continue to consume more stuff, for so long as we find meaning in this way. In a chapter in the Earthscan Reader, Grant McCracken argues that, at both as communities and as individuals, we must develop strategies to cope with the discrepancy between how we find society in reality, and our hope that an alternative society is possible. One such strategy, he argues, is the displacement of these ideals “allowing us to sustain hope “in the face of impressive grounds for pessimism”. Hence, we may remove these ideals “from daily life and transport them to another cultural universe, there to be kept within reach but out of danger” – somewhere that they cannot be contradicted and that they avoid the undue scrutiny that could declare them ultimately unattainable. Examples of places to which ideals can be moved in this way include an historical ‘golden age’ in which social life is imagined to conform to our ideals, or a utopian future. Alternatively, this displacement may occur spatially – by reference to a distant country (whose inhabitants live an idyllic pastoral existence, perhaps), or to the lives of others (celebrities, for example).

It is essential, however, that we “both collectively and individually” have access to these displaced meanings; they are, after all, what give us hope. But this access must be achieved without risking undue scrutiny: it was to remove them from undue scrutiny that these meanings were displaced in the first place. How is this delicate process negotiated? What bridges can we find to our displaced meanings that simultaneously provide us with this access, whilst safeguarding them against undue scrutiny? The prospect of ownership of particular goods offers such a bridge. In prospect, a convertible car, for example, offers the prospect not just of the car itself, but an entire idealized way of life. Certainly, marketing strategies encourage the perception that the car stands for something more than its functional value. The apparent possibility that the car can confer an idealized way of life offers substance to this ideal, making it seem more plausible, and more easily within grasp. The ideal of this lifestyle, however, is not tested – unless, of course, the car is eventually bought. Then, the ideal becomes vulnerable to contradiction (what happens if life on the open-road with the roof down isn’t found to be as ideal as expected?). Here, the individual “simply discredits the object obtained as a bridge to displaced meaning and transfers this role to an object not yet in his or her possession”. This is easily achieved: “for most consumers there is always another, higher level of consumption to which they might aspire… [serving] as a guarantee of safe refuge for displaced meaning.”

“When goods serve as bridges to displaced meaning they help perpetually to enlarge the individual’s tastes and preferences and prevent the attainment of a ‘sufficiency’ of goods. They are, to this extent, an essential part of the Western consumer system and the reluctance of this system ever to allow that ‘enough is enough’.” (McCracken, 2006).

So green marketing may enable us to persuade more people to consume more things that are more energy efficient; to buy a Nintendo Wii rather than a Playstation 3. But, aside from the power that the Nintendo Wii requires to use, it also takes energy to manufacture. And we will soon discard it for the next model.

When we are faced with the trajectories of a growing world population and the rapidly growing middle classes in emerging economies, and the simultaneous need for 90% reductions in carbon dioxide production, it is very bold to assert that can we improve the ‘efficiency’ of our consumption rapidly enough, and indefinitely, in order to allow us each to continue to consume ever more. Far from being able to meet our environmental challenges without changing who we are, as the CSE asserts, we must begin to address exactly thits issue. We must engage our sense of who we are, in relation to one another and our environment, and reassess what we understand it to mean to be full alive.

Tom CromptonGreen shopping

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  • Graham Game - January 8, 2008 reply

    I do think there is a danger of overcomplicating this issue: One of the main reasons we consume, is that it makes us feel good, & the Catch 22 is that we do it more when a/ We have the money & b/ When we are faced with difficult & depressing issues like climate change & we need cheering up!

  • Jim - January 8, 2008 reply

    This post really hits the nail on the head for me. The need to lower our material standard of living is rarely talked about. It sits alongside the need to lower world population as one of the sustainable ‘elephants in the room’ which no-one seems able to talk about. Hope for a better way of life is a neccessary human characteristic, but I dont believe that it has always been consuming goods which have provided our main bridges to the ideal life. Society, starting with our education system, needs to debunk the myth that more stuff equals happiness.

  • Eivind Hoff - January 8, 2008 reply

    I think the analysis is absolutely right, yet it points to a the need for a philosophical re-think which goes much further than merely valuing nature; to me the implications are primarily social. and that’s why i doubt the environmental movement’s ability to lead this campaign. on the other hand, there aren’t many others out there. what i find missing is simply a secular new agey movement, to be honest.

  • Ciaran Mundy - January 11, 2008 reply

    100 ideas house: Lessons learned and lessons missed

    Of the anecdotal analysis that makes up the report, for me the interesting lesson is that if we set the legal framework correctly, to genuinely deliver a sustainable level of emissions (requiring 80 or 90% reductions) commercial organizations will always find a way to sell stuff to most people, so we just need to focus on getting government and business to do enough and people will accept it.

    I have responded to specific parts of the report which I have put in italics before my comments:

    Given that we live in a consumer society which has actually created the problem of global warming and associated climate change, clearly there is potential for consumerism to cut emissions and combat the problem i.e. by choosing lower impact products and services.

    A non sequitur, one could argue the opposite, but most importantly the emphasis may well be a serious distraction, there is little reason to believe from this report or any other source, that such products and services will be chosen voluntarily over higher emissions versions at any where near the rate required even if the demonstration house represents in it’s totality a lifestyle causing 80 or 90% less CO2 emissions.

    The rich tapestry of life relies on the differences between people and their ability to perform different roles and functions. So we therefore need to envisage a low carbon society that provides a variety of imaginative and aspirational lifestyles that people are willing to buy in to and more importantly enjoy!

    Yes this is an important task for individuals, organizations and government in delivering change.

    Informed shopping has a role to play. For example, a Nintendo Wii is both an aspirational product and uses a tenth of the energy of a Play Station 3 or an Xbox 360. Teenagers and indeed adults want games consoles and are unlikely to start listening to Radio 4 on their wind up radios, so let’s makes sure they buy the right one and then maybe Sony & Microsoft will think hard about their own offerings.

    This is a perfect example of how the role of environmental organizations is misplaced. Buying a Nintendo Wii adds to the urgent problems of inequitable and unsustainable resource use, in particular global warming, and it is not appropriate for NGOs or government to promote their sale as environmentally positive. If I were to suffocate my wife it would not matter if I held the pillow over her face for 5 minutes or 50, she would still be dead!

    The house included 50 energy saving ideas with a competition asking people for their ideas to help us reach 100, the winner will receive a £2,000 energy efficiency makeover of their home.

    I hope this is a good way to demonstrate positive future lifestyles, assuming the level of changes required and the time frame in which it must be achieved is explicit and central, but not pandering to the idea that choosing to do one or other small thing will deliver us from the threat of global warming.

    This [lady who got very excited by designer washing line] could be the single most outer directed reaction we encountered, I told her they sold it at John Lewis and off she ran to buy it. Her reaction typified this group, I like that item – I will go away buy it and use it.

    They loved the look and feel of the stand. In particular the kitchen was very aspirational (we had several people photograph it and measure up to use as a plan for their own home). The wallpaper in the lounge that I thought was disgusting was actually very popular, highlighting why inner directed people working in NGOs and Quangos aren’t always well placed to design campaigns aimed at the OD or the wider general public. We trusted an interior designer to know more than us about design trends and guess what, they did!

    The value of this public engagement is possibly to best re-assure people that life will not be miserable in a carbon constrained economy but better, happier and potentially more free. My fear is that such demonstrations can simply feed into the problem of over consumption by presenting consumer choice of greener products as just another lifestyle statement they may currently wish to make, or not, and the truth of what really needs to be done at an urgent rate fades into the back round. Activities of this kind must act primarily as a means to carry a campaign message based around persuading people of the reality of our situation and pressuring leaders of business and government to take the necessary steps. Put simply, kepp saying what the problem is, demonstrate as persuasively as possible that it can be resolved and demand that our politicians and leaders in the commercial sector deliver and accept the changes we urgently require.

  • Ian Preston - January 14, 2008 reply

    It’s great to see that the 100 ideas house has created such debate amongst clearly well read and distinguished readers. The project is an example of an innovative engagement tool that required CSE as an organisation to get out of its comfort zone.

    There are many good well thought out points made in the above. However, I would again point out that we – the ‘environmentally minded’ – are NOT like the vast majority of the population; the demographic of people at CSE and other NGOs overlaps with around 18% of the population. Achieving our CO2 targets and developing a low carbon society by 2050 will require a paradigm shift in the way we think and live our lives.

    The 100 ideas house represents an attempt to start people on this journey. But there isn’t going to be a single road or path to the Promised Land and different people will take different routes. We can help shape them i.e. choosing to introduce either carbon taxes or Personal Carbon Allowances but we can’t dictate them.

    So engaging most normal people is tough, let’s face it we have all tried. The following response is a good example of how we can easily alienate them:

    Buying a Nintendo Wii adds to the urgent problems of inequitable and unsustainable resource use, in particular global warming, and it is not appropriate for NGOs or government to promote their sale as environmentally positive. If I were to suffocate my wife it would not matter if I held the pillow over her face for 5 minutes or 50, she would still be dead!

    I have a Wii and enjoy playing it, I’m not perfect but I have not flown for 4 years and I cycle to work everyday. How many teenagers (well the bank of mum and dad) are going to buy a games console this year, they aren’t going to listen to arguments about suffocate their family members. So we will need both green consumerism and a separate or complimentary culture of less is more.

    The next step for CSE is to take the lessons learnt from this project and apply them to the most pressing need. That is to get all the short payback energy efficiency measures in.

    The Government’s 2007 budget presented the aim that: ‘by the end of the next decade, all householders will have been offered help to introduce energy efficient measures with the aim that, where practicably possible, all homes will have achieved their cost-effective energy efficiency potential ’. The measures seen as cost-effective in the Budget include ‘particularly cavity wall, loft and hot water cylinder insulation, draught proofing, efficient boilers and heating controls’.

    Implementing the measures identified by HM Treasury will reduce domestic household emissions by 6.2 MtC by 2020. These measures are likely to be offered to householders through the CERT (Carbon Emissions Reduction Target) and the Supplier obligation post-2011. However, the savings are dependent upon householders taking these measures when they are offered them, which will require them to have a better understanding of their own energy use and its impacts on climate change and also more engaging and creative marketing techniques.

    So we need to develop a campaign and delivery mechanism that makes this happen, to date the attempts to make insulation sexy haven’t been enough.

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