Responsible Shoppers, but Bad Citizens?

By: Annie Leonard
Published: 7-30-2012
New York Times

When you stay in a hotel, you reuse your towel. When you shop for detergent, you reach for something nontoxic. But do small acts like these lead to further steps, or just check the “good deed” box for the day and distract from real activism? Is environmentally responsible spending effective or just a distraction?

Annie Leonard, director of the Story of Stuff Project, suggested this discussion.

Buying “green” products has many upsides. It’s a visible sign of our personal commitment to environmental values. It helps align our values and actions, which is why it feels good. It can send a message up the corporate supply chain that we want responsible products. Unfortunately, voting with our dollars by itself does little to help the planet – and there are some unintended downsides.

Some research suggests that buying responsibly confers a license to be less responsible later – the “I gave at the office” syndrome. Other studies show the positive effects can be canceled out by the so-called Prius paradox: if we know that our car is less polluting, we tend to drive more. Perhaps the most worrisome problem is the illusion it generates that progress is being made, so that green shoppers may feel less compelled to engage in the broader social and political actions needed to make deep, lasting change. The bottom line is that green shopping, even when practiced by millions of people, just doesn’t add up to enough to affect the system. Sociologists call this the behavior-impact gap.

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Published 3 years, 2 months ago under Philosophy and Ethics