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Forget green consumerism

Does buying “green” products rather than the more conventional alternatives really make a difference in terms of improving the environment? Environmental activist Joel Makower says not so much.

He argues that the drive for efficiency and cost savings in business makes a bigger difference:

But there’s a deeper problem with green consumerism: It’s often hard to know which companies are improving their environmental performance—and how. The key element of making consumer choices—knowledge—is missing. Companies’ environmental improvements (or lack thereof) aren’t usually obvious, even to the experts. In fact, some of the most environmentally improved products make no green claims at all.

Here’s why: To save money, reduce risks, improve quality, and remain competitive, companies in nearly every sector are continually engineering waste, inefficiency, energy intensity, and toxicity out of their manufacturing and distribution. A few have upended their business models in the name of efficiency and enhanced productivity. They sometimes do this because of the reduced environmental impact, but mostly they do it because it makes good business sense—not something companies usually bother to tell their customers.

The fundamental problem is not post-consumer waste, but rather the waste that’s generated in creating things and delivering them to consumers. The numbers are staggering:

What’s the point? It’s only a matter of time before the story of GNT gets told and the public recognizes that for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal landfills, at least 40 more pounds are created upstream by industrial processes—and that a lot of this waste is far more dangerous to environmental and human health than our newspapers and grass clippings. At that point, the locus of concern could shift away from beverage containers, grocery bags, and the other mundane leftovers of daily life to what happens behind the scenes—the production, crating, storing, and shipping of the goods we buy and use.

This is not altogether bad news. An inefficient power supply in a computer may raise your electricity bill by $5 or $10 a year, and isn’t something you’re likely to worry about. If Google used that power supply, it would cost them millions of dollars in power bills. So they build their own servers and fund research into improving power supply technology.

Higher commodity prices create incentives to limit waste, but also make increasingly invasive extraction methods economically feasible. There was a recent article in National Geographic about mining for gold in the face of rising gold prices that exemplifies this problem. Rising commodity prices lead directly to habitat loss, which is the primary cause of species extinction.

It’s tough being an environmentalist.

1 Comment

  1. Anyone who’s been in a supermarket during shelf restocking – hello, fellow late-night Safeway shoppers! – ought to have some appreciation of the amount of waste involved even just in the final pre-retail logistics. Pallets, cardboard boxes, and endless amounts of cling wrap. Multiply that by 5-10x for the previous parts of the journey to the shelf, add in diesel for transport, yuck.

    But industrial waste is also a low-hanging fruit because as noted, the corporations can drive huge amounts of efficiency improvement and also derive financial benefit from doing so.

    But that’s not the whole of the solution, for one simple reason: doing so drives down the price of products, which lets people buy more stuff, which produces more pollution. Eventually people have all the stuff they need and start consuming things like “a college education”, but there are so many other people who don’t yet have all the stuff they need that getting a college education involves paying other people who then go buy more stuff.

    I am a big fan of stuff, so this isn’t really a criticism. For X amount of pollution one wants to get as much stuff as possible, and efficiency helps. But if one wants to reduce, say, energy consumption overall, the cost savings from efficiency alone can’t do the trick in a world where most people have a lot of unmet demand for stuff.

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