In the early 1980s, the supermarket chain of Loblaws started to produce an advertising vehicle called the Insider's Report. Part goofy consumer comic book and part serious shrine to commercial culture, the thick advertising flyer is not only dense and chaotic in its design style, it's also crammed with dense and chaotic consumer messages.
In the early days of Loblaws' corporate greening-in the late eighties when the company was spending thousands to promote its "Green" line of products-there were many darkly comic and bizarrely apocalyptic messages to be found in the Insider's Report. One of my favourites was the company's attempt to convince consumers to purchase more maple syrup: buy it now before acid rain kills all the maple trees! (The exclamation point was theirs.)
Such was the advanced logic behind the naive blooming of green consumerism.
If some of these early strategies seemed clunky beyond belief (that is, when they didn't seem sinister beyond despair), just how does green consumerism look from the evolved vantage point of the late 1990s?
In The Myth of Green Marketing: Tending Our Goats at the Edge of Apocalypse, Toby Smith, an assistant professor in the Problem Centred Studies Department at University College of Cape Breton, explores green consumerism as "a site of political struggle" at the level of the ordinary and everyday. Central to this exploration is the idea that consumerism is a powerful vehicle for the transmission of social norms: consumerism is not simply an economic force, it's also a cultural phenomenon.
Toby Smith argues that what is implicated in every consumer act is the "ethic of productivist expansionism"-the idea, entrenched since Adam Smith, that for our economic system to work, we need to enhance production and encourage increasing consumption. The environmental challenge to this model, of course, warns that there are ecological limits to what we can extract from the earth and pump into the atmosphere. The voracious appetites of the goats referred to in the subtitle meet the apocalyptic vision of a resource-depleted planet-and the consumer is left wondering about the correct and ethical course of action.
Where Smith's formulation leads into fascinating territory is in the way in which he characterizes this collision between the environmentalist world view and the productivist world view. He sees green consumerism as a force that arose precisely at the "historical moment when productivism is under threat from the environmental movement." And, more importantly, he sees green consumerism acting as a suture to the wound that environmentalists have sliced into the heart of productivism.
If consumers are feeling more than a little panicked about the state of the earth, then, according to Smith, green consumerism offers a symbolic strategy, a way for individuals to feel that they are actually doing something positive (even if they're not). The myth allows us to suture our wounded belief system and, what's more, "crisis resolution is symbolically achieved, even if the actuality is left forever pending."
One might reasonably ask if symbolic resolution is worth much at this point in the ecological slide towards the apocalypse. Does the wound that environmentalists have torn in the fabric of productivist expansionism need suturing, or would we not be better off with a radical reweaving of the fabric itself?
On this question, Smith doesn't offer much hope: "[I]t is not possible to be optimistic in my conclusions. We have been too long held ransom to productivist hegemony. The ecological crisis is multifarious and seems overwhelming in its implications. Broad, radical structural change is required. This is unlikely to happen.... When one looks around this tragic world of ours, it is impossible to be anything but cynical about radical ecological-political or economic change."
In other words, more maple syrup, anyone?
Lorraine Johnson is the author of five books, the most recent of which is Grow Wild! Native Plant Gardening in Canada and Northern United States.
Recent Related Books
As governments increasingly step back from regulatory responsibilities (whether due to budget constraints or a philosophical preference for "free" markets), voluntary initiatives in the corporate sector have been promoted as an effective way to achieve environmental goals, in much the same way as green consumerism has been promoted in the marketplace. But should these voluntary initiatives be considered gifts or threats to environmental sustainability? Do they have the potential to improve corporate environmental behaviour or are they the eco-equivalent of the Trojan horse, "providing a deceptively attractive cover for elimination of regulatory capacity"? In Voluntary Initiatives: The New Politics of Corporate Greening (Broadview Press, 268 pages, $22.95 paper, ISBN 1-55111-218-3), a collection of essays edited by Robert B. Gibson, contributors explore the promises and pitfalls of this controversial trend. (L.J.)