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.