by Sophie Price

Companies wanting to meet consumers environmental values have stepped up and provided them with a range of products – but they come at a cost putting them out of the reach of many. Photo/YouTube: Commerce Commission

Going green is a luxury. How do I know this – because it is my luxury. Right now I am sitting here in rural New Zealand penning this piece in my recycled wood studio, sipping on an organic turmeric latte out of a $40 reusable coffee cup while my rescue puppy snoozes in the patch of sun at my feet. I feel great (and reading this back – a tad wanky).

But I also know I am lucky. At this stage in my life I can now afford to consume sustainability. I can purchase natural, organic, fair trade fibres, eat organic farmers’ market produce and, litter my house with wooden toys for my child.

Now I am not mega wealthy or anything – but I am well enough off and well enough educated to make better, and yes more expensive, choices when it comes my consumption.

While sometimes it’s nice, I don’t feel the need (nor can I afford) to always have the latest, best green thing. Instead I look back at how my super thrifty Gran used to do things. I remember her reusing tins and jars over and over again; bulk-buying flours; growing veggies and raising chickens; really thinking hard about everything she purchased; and, not wasting a thing.

I am also not perfect. At the end of the day when I have a tired, teary child on my hip and just need to get home – I have been known to throw my shopping in a single use plastic bag. I made that choice, because in that moment, my sanity trumped my greenness (my sanity, or lack there or, was also probably the reason I forgot to bring my reusable bag into the shop in the first place – but hey).  

I haven’t always been able to live this way and make the choices I can now make. For 10 years I lived in developing countries where we were just as environmentally minded as we are here in New Zealand – the difference being, there we couldn’t afford to do anything about it. The island nations that I was lucky enough to have worked in, still genuinely care about the environment – they have to, because right now they are staring climate refugee status right in the face. Despite this, when you earn a $1 an hour, feeding your family will always be prioritised in the immediate over rising sea levels.

It is one of the world’s smallest nations with one of the world’s smallest populations that make on average $4 a day. Despite this, they are still fighting to ensure their atolls are not lost to climate change.   /Photo 350.org

My experience is taken further by Malcolm Fairbrother in a paper published in the European Sociological Review titled Rich People, Poor People, and Environmental Concern: Evidence across Nations and Time. Fairbrother writes “environmental concern is generally higher in poorer countries.”

Noting this, I would just like to clarify that going green is but one part of the complex environmental movement. In the context of this piece, it is the consumer industry for green items – a small but growing sector of the sustainability industry, an industry which the Business & Sustainable Development Commission predicts will be worth $12 trillion by 2030. That is the wood over plastic, bulk bin stores and eco cleaning products. Items that due to their up-front cost or lack of accessibility, are out of the reach of 90 per cent of the population.

In his paper, Fairbrother also concluded that within nations, the rich are slightly more environmentally aware – but only in some areas, not all. I am willing to bet my last dollar that the consumer industry for green items benefits from many of their dollars.

While this is far from a new topic of conversation, with big money comes big PR firms who are paid to drown out any dissent that could cost big business money. So I believe it is a conversation worth having again.

A conversation around how, as Marc Bamuthi Joseph put it in The Guardian, those who struggle to make ends meet cannot relate to the “green lifestyle” – that living sustainably is simply inaccessible to millions in the USA.

Kermit now realises that being green is a luxury – a luxury most people cannot afford. Photo/Pixabay

Bamuthi Joseph opined that five years ago, so why am I here five years later tapping away at my keyboard asking the same question? This trillion-dollar industry has had years to connect with all consumers. Is making the most money one can from all sectors of this industry more important than the very environment it claims it is helping?

Well, apparently so if one looks at the 2015 Colmar Brunton Better Futures report which shows: “Kiwis are more interested than ever in choosing the sustainable option when purchasing goods or services”. While the market research agency says businesses here have a fair way to go to meet the level of demand, consumers drive economies and if people want green then it’s green they shall have.

Colmar Brunton CEO Jacqueline Farman said then consumers want to see their values reflected in what they purchase. “We are instinctively drawn to brands with an open, inclusive values driven approach – brands that are trustworthy, confident, friendly, creative and sustainable have the greatest appeal.” This hasn’t changed today. In fact, I would say that it has only gained momentum here in New Zealand.

But if the Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Mike Tidwell is correct none of this matters because consumers are being distracted by a “go-green mania” which results in little change. “Every time we pick up another green issue of Vanity Fair, every time we see ‘10 ways to go green at the office’ on some web site, we have the impression that broad change is happening when it’s not.” This was said in an interview on National Public Radio 10 years ago, where Tidwell also remarked that as a society we need to do more, such as change laws to reduce the laws of fossil fuels. I don’t think we have done more, except perhaps to have discovered a new way to consume more.

Whether or not any environmental good is coming of it, it is this consumption and the values rooted within it that have commoditised the environment and sparked the go green movement. As George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux writes “the first fact to recognize is that environmental quality is very much like leisure time: as people become wealthier they demand more of it, mostly because they can better afford it.” That is, a select few of us as customers have created this consumer industry for green items, and now it appears that caring for the environment a luxury that only the middle and upper classes can afford. And because so few can afford it, how much good is it really doing for the environment.

So how can the majority of people relate to the finest green? As Madeleine Somerville says we cannot “afford to exclude, police, and grant participation to the handful of individuals able to live the perfect green life.”

Well here in New Zealand the “answer” to Sommerville’s quandary came in the form of big box retailers selling “sustainable” items at a fraction of the cost – meaning they have a fraction of the items lifespan and just end up in land fill anyway and create a false economy to boot. Well less is more (to the big box retailers), but as Liz Lee Reynolds in The Ecologist says, “we can rebrand capitalism in hundreds of ‘green’ guises but it will always be led by individuals who value growth in profits over protection of natural resources.”

This is the ultimate aim of sustainability, but as Lee Reynolds says, “we can rebrand capitalism in hundreds of ‘green’ guises but it will always be led by individuals who value growth in profits over protection of natural resources.” Photo/ Pintrist

So not an answer. And I am afraid right now, I don’t have another one. I do know we need to find one, because as writer Ann-Marie Alcantara says “environmentalism is once again in danger of becoming irrelevant if membership to its ranks remains — intentionally or otherwise — exclusive.” To avoid this scenario, Alcantara says a discussion involving a diverse group of people with differing views is needed. “But, where do we even begin?” she asks. She answers this question saying “we start with what we know.”

I have to agree with her, to bridge the divide the and truly find solutions to the damage we have cause to our environment, we need to start with what we know.

So what is it that you know?

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