Author, The Virtuous Consumer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008 1:00 PM
There was a time, and it was pre-Al Gore, when buying organic meant eggs and tomatoes, Whole Foods and farmer's markets. But in the past two years, the word has seeped out of the supermarket and into the home store, into the vacation industry, into the Wal-Mart. Almost three-quarters of the U.S. population buys organic products at least occasionally; between 2005 and 2006 the sale of organic non-food items increased 26 percent, from $744 million to $938 million, according to the Organic Trade Association.
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Leslie Garrett, author of "The Virtuous Consumer," was online Wednesday, March 5, at 1 p..m. ET to discuss the conflicts ones faces in trying to save the environment.
A transcript follows.
Leslie Garrett: Hello!
Leslie Garrett here, author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!). World's longest title, I know... Happy to answer questions!
Petworth DC: Sadly, I bet the people reading this chat are already sold on the idea that consuming less is the best way. When trying to be green, think of old-timey (and now?) farmers and artists who use everything up and then use the scrap for something else. Maybe a recession will actually help.
Leslie Garrett: I've often said that if you talk to anyone who lived through the Depression, you'll learn the true value of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. For my book, I interviewed a woman who used old "sheers" that she salvaged to make produce bags for the grocery store instead of taking the plastic ones. She said younger people thought she was nuts and older people always asked her where she got them...
Arlington, Va.: While I certainly agree with the premise that consumption is a large part of the problem green or not (let's remember that "reduce" comes before "reuse, recycle"), shouldn't the act of supporting organic producers come into play also? If we don't buy organic products and others continue to buy their traditional counterparts, doesn't that hurt the chances of the organic companies' success? Obviously I'm not talking about Walmart or GE, but other small companies.
Leslie Garrett: It's true that we are consumers, whether we like it or not. I don't grow my own food, cultivate my own cotton and weave it into fabric, churn my own butter, live off the grid, etc. So there are certainly items we need to purchase. And I agree that, when the option exists, we should purchase those items that are better for the planet, for our own health and respectful of the people who produced them (fair-trade, for example). So yes, when possible, support those companies who are providing us with "greener" alternatives.
Silver Spring, Md.: Also, small-scale green neighborhoods are under attack from developers hawking "Smart Growth." Can't have single-family homes, even if they are small ones holding middle-class families who take transit. Yards are small, trees big, but gotta rezone and replace with big, luxury high-rises boasting granite countertops. Yes, population growth is good! It means more consumers! If you question that you are being cruel to all those poor people with high birth rates!
Leslie Garrett: I sheepishly confess I have three children of my own -- but refuse to give them away on Craigslist! Seriously, population growth is a huge threat to the planet but given gender inequality, lack of access to birth control, etc. in many parts of the world, it's a problem not likely to be wrestled down any time soon.
It is frustrating that the "green" consumer movement can sometimes seem so narrow -- without room for those who simply live more simply but less openly "green". It seems a common lament among those who have long adopted a more eco-friendly life -- public transit, smaller homes, etc. -- that the new green consumer feels smug.
Charlottesville, Va.: Given that the essence of capitalism, which none of us seem to be denouncing, depends on the reinvention of the commodity, and multiples of it, to turn the world round with money and trade, isn't "going green" in every product range a saving grace, instead of something to be sullied because it dares to try to make just a little less impact in the production than, say, harsh chemical agents, highly sprayed cotton, and plastic upon plastic. What's the big beef with it?
Leslie Garrett: Good point and a hard one to answer (never did get around to earning that Economics degree!). However, from where I sit, having had access to many brighter than I who've given this considerable thought, our patterns of consumption (more and cheaper) are taking a toll on the planet that threatens our health and our future. Going green is indeed a good choice for items we must purchase. The problem is when we're purchasing products simply BECAUSE they're green -- not because we need them or they contribute particularly to our quality of life.
Takoma Park, Md.: It is hard to tell what the main point of the article is, since it mishmashes several issues. Yes, there is "greed in the name of green;" this is a logical consequence of current consumerist society. Yes, Hawken is right about the need to consume less. But there is also a need for thoughtful, intelligent consuming, whereas the article at times equates consuming with greed itself (e.g., well-made items) or with bad choices (e.g., certain hybrid vehicles).
Beyond the obvious point that there exists greed in the name of green, what is the point of the article? Is it that "virtuous consumer" is an oxymoron, or does your book attempt to explain how consumers can be virtuous consumers?
Leslie Garrett: I don't believe "virtuous consumer" is an oxymoron. As I stated earlier, I am a consumer -- I purchase power for my lights, computer, etc. I purchase food. I purchase clothing. I drive a car, etc. etc. A virtuous consumer, I believe, is someone who recognizes that all those purchasing choices has an impact on the health of the planet, on the people who produce the items I buy, and on the health of my family. A virtuous consumer attempts to mitigate those impacts by purchasing smarter. I think Monica's intent was to show that purchasing "green" for the status symbol it offers is missing the whole point. You don't throw out a perfectly good cotton t-shirt so that you can purchase a bamboo version. Sometimes the older fuel-efficient car is a better choice than the Prius. In the U.K. a recent study revealed that "keeping up the Joneses" now extends to "green" lifestyles. Respondents revealed that they were more likely to adopt behaviours that were openly "green" rather than other less noticeable but more impactful behaviours in an attempt to look more eco-friendly than their neighbors....
Washington, D.C.: I totally agree with the smugness. My dirty confession: I rarely recycle (I know, burn me at the stake), and my best friend, uber-recylcer, gives me mega grief. But...I don't own a car (she does), don't eat meat (she does) and don't take carbon-emitting flights (she does). It seems like we have a very definition of what green looks like, and we lambast those who don't fit it.
Leslie Garrett: That has been the sad result of all this emphasis on our carbon footprints (feetprint??). Too many of us want to feel more "virtuous" than our neighbors and publicly stone those who aren't openly "green". Green is becoming the new status symbol and while I'm not convinced that's a bad thing, I wish we'd stop judging everyone around us. Frankly, I've got three kids which hardly makes me the poster girl for living light on the planet...
I often remind people that kindness is also a scarce resource (sorry if I'm starting to sound like the Dalai Lama...)
Crozet, Va.: My family is helping to build a cohousing community, which is pedestrian oriented and neighborly, like a village. We all have smaller privately owned homes (900 sf to 1800 sf) and share a large clubhouse that will have an office, guest rooms, a kids' playroom, and other things that will allow us to have a nicer lifestyle despite the smaller house. It will be 26 homes near Charlottesville, Va. Blue Ridge Cohousing
Other cohousing neighborhoods have clothing swap parties, or host the local Community Sponsored Agriculture dropoff point, or enter into sustainability partnerships with local universities. We plan to do the same once we're built. The folks in cohousing neighborhoods own less, but share things with their neighbors, who are usually good friends. We have a lot of fun with dance parties, shared dinners, house concerts, and lots of playing on the central green. To borrow from the motto of the New Dream folk, we have "more fun, less stuff."
The funny thing is I get accusations for not being green enough from 4,000 square-foot-home families that have organic cotton insulation in the walls of their "green" homes. We are all middle-class families building these neighborhoods, and we can't afford some of these "green" features. We consider building smaller to be our most green feature.
Leslie Garrett: I love the notion of co-housing communities. I live in an older neighborhood on a court (circle -- think Knot's Landing without all the drama) and it's great how we're able to rely on each other. We do often share possessions -- but I also love that my neighbors look out for me and my kids. I have a sense of safety that I'm not sure I'd have if I didn't know my neighbors as well.
The common theme is many of these questions/comments is people feeling judged by others for not being "as green"... It's nuts that we've come to this. Though I wonder if all this points to the fact that many of us are terrified about the future and looking to point fingers...
Annapolis, Md.: I appreciate the article in the Post today, but I think it misses the point.
The mainstream environmental movement has always placed the onus on us, the consumers, to do the dirty work of preserving the planet. We're supposed to do "less": drive less, buy less, consume less, whatever. But the point is that this approach will always lead us on an eventual path toward environmental destruction, because the issues involved are so, so much more deeply entrenched than that. It has to do with the very way our capitalist society functions. We will always be stuck choosing the lesser of two evils. Our products, NO MATTER HOW LONG WE KEEP THEM, will still end up in a land fill. Hybrid cars may use LESS fossil fuels, but they still use them. The ideas this article proposes really don't help the planet, they just stave off its destruction a little bit longer.
If we're truly going to find a solution to the world's environmental problems, we need to think beyond existential dilemmas such as whether or not to buy a new refrigerator -- because it really doesn't matter if something is "less bad" for the environment. We need to find a way to implement vast, systemic change to the very way we do things. We need to do things that are 'good' for the environment.
That is why I think that this "green consumerism," for all of its flaws, is probably a closer approximation to living in harmony with the earth than traditional environmentalism that dictates that we cut back. It shows innovation; it shows we can mold our current needs as a society to meet the demands of today.
I highly recommend the book "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They do a better job of explaining what I'm trying to get at here.
Leslie Garrett: Cradle to Cradle is a brilliant book and I've often heard the world's brilliant thinkers point to the fact that technology will likely rescue us. I've had the pleasure and privilege of attending Bioneers the past two years -- it's a conference held annually that showcases many of the most innovative minds and what they're working on in terms of environmental issues, social issues, etc. This past year had an engineer (I'm sorry, I forget his name) who's been working on a propellor with broad applications (city's water supply -- keep water moving and you vastly reduce need for chemical treatment), etc. It's a tiny propellor with HUGE potential. So I agree that it's innovations like that offering up hope. And I absolutely agree that a "greener" product is preferable to a non-green one. However, I still maintain we have to learn to make do with less. If only because our relentless pursuit of "more" is producing increasingly stressed people, trapped in jobs they hate to keep on top of their mounting debt load.
Bethesda, Md.: Even before climate and environmental consciousness, or semi-consciousness, Thorstein Veblen took an anthropological perspective on conspicuous consumption (Theory of the Leisure Class). Will anything short of in-your-face climate crisis and deep understanding alter the need for tribal status displays to behavior that reflects actual understanding?
Leslie Garrett: Wish I knew the answer to that one, though I suspect it's a rhetorical question. I often feel like I'm sitting on a dirty secret -- having read so much of the information available on the state of the world, it's looking pretty bleak. Yet we carry on with our lives, begrudging any change that inconveniences us. I've reconciled myself that I can only change myself and talk to as many people as possible in the hope that they'll acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.
Washington, D.C.: If I'm buying a necessity item, is buying the "green" item from Switzerland over the "non-green" one from the states okay, or does that dependon the item? Where do you draw the line?
Leslie Garrett: Tough question. And one I obliquely addressed in the article. There tend to be issues that "trump" others. For the most part, I'd guess that the U.S.-made item is a better bet than something flown from Europe. However, many Swiss-made products (such as personal care products) are much healthier for us, containing far less hormone-disrupting chemicals, etc. So it tends to be a case-by-case basis. I'm a firm believe that when you DON'T buy the Made in U.S. item or you DON'T buy from a U.S. company, LET THEM KNOW WHY. Tell them you want products you can feel comfortable purchasing. As consumers, we wield power. Use it.
Re: Smugness: You must be joking.
Yes, there is a bit of annoying condescension that comes along with some the green movement. But honestly, there are far more people in this country (including media, politicians, and consumers alike) who are just as patronizing and condescending towards these green ideas as vice versa.
The idea of community, and culture, and gee not spending your entire life in a cubicle making money so you can afford a big car and a flat-screen TV are scoffed at. Just look at how America talks about European lifestyle... a buncha lazy socialists riding around on bikes, yuck!
The fact that this perception is changing somewhat is a good thing, and the idea that this 'smugness' you speak of is a one-way street is absurd.
Leslie Garrett: Believe me, I don't think smugness is the sole territory of environmentalists/green consumers. I hate to see it across the board. When I was a new parent, I was constantly amazed at how judged I felt (breastfeeding, day care, etc. etc.). I just hate to see people with the same intent weighing each other in the balance.
That said, I've had the privilege to work with many (indeed most) people who aren't like that at all. However, it seems a common theme in this thread.
Culture of Trash: It drives me nuts that you can't fix anything anymore. I had a not-old dishwasher break, and the repairman told me that GE will not sell the replacement part -- you have to buy a whole new something or other, which costs as much as a new machine. Pure idiocy. I often find it is more expensive to fix something than to replace it. Sigh.
Leslie Garrett: I tried to give away a television set a few years ago that my husband had since college. It didn't work well (the picture was teensy) but I had hoped that some charity would take it, fix it and re-sell it. Nope. Nobody wanted it. I finally found a TV repair guy (I swear, the last of a dying breed) who took it for parts.
Takoma Park, Md.: I try to live green in as many ways as I can, but I confess, I love to travel -- last summer flew to Central America for two weeks and had an amazing and educational time. But my boyfriend (typically much more of a consumer than me) rightly points out that my big transgression negates most of my tiny ones.
Carbon exchange programs aside, how can I justify doing something so bad? I've tried "Learning about other cultures is important" but that seems weak..
Leslie Garrett: My confession is that I write a column on sustainable travel (The Virtuous Traveler runs on the Web site of NBC travel editor Peter Greenberg and in The Toronto Star newspaper). I've struggled with this issue a lot. On the one hand, air travel is incredibly polluting. On the other, travel does increase tolerance, understanding and contribute to much of our awe about the world (and boost our desire to protect it).
I encourage people to choose less polluting forms of travel when possible -- train, and so on. Spend longer in each destination rather than jumping (via plane) from one place to the next. Support the local economies of places you visit -- many developing countries rely on tourism so ensure that the bulk of your money supports them: homestays, local restaurants, tour guides, etc.
Travel closer to home (which eliminates need for plane travel). And push airlines for less polluting air travel. We're starting to see innovations in this area, but airlines need to see that it matters to us.
Bethlehem, Pa.: As the owner of a boutique that offers organic and sweatshop-free clothing, I have daily contact with people working on making their lives greener. I really don't see the greediness and blatant consumerism you disparage. When people need a new tee or new pair of jeans, they come in and buy an organic version from us. Very few --if any -- of our customers come in having dumped their entire wardrobe so they can start over green. I hear much more about this supposed smugness in media stories, including yours, than I've experienced in real life.
Leslie Garrett: Keep in mind that was Monica Hesse's article, not mine. I do encourage people through my book and my columns to make "greener" choices. What Monica was taking issue with is the notion of "replacing" perfectly good items with "green" alternatives. I don't see a lot of it, but I do see some. What I encourage is that when you need to make a new purchase, look for the most earth-friendly option. However, it remains true that often the "greenest" item is the one we don't buy.
That said, I'm heartened by the number of options a concerned consumer has these days. And that prices are comparable if not better.
Washington, D.C.: I submit that paying more attention to "reduce" and "reuse" might also be better for the pocketbook -- if not economically required. I'm a child of Depression/Greatest Generation parents and I remember all too well the stagflation of the Seventies. I spent my formative years with the notion that my parents and I couldn't keep up with the Joneses, couldn't buy things just because we didn't feel like looking at the old things any more, etc. Now there was an op-ed in today's New York Times that suggested that America, like Japan, could end up in an economic downturn lasting as long as 20 years.
washingtonpost.com: Double Bubble Trouble ( The New York Times, March 5)
Leslie Garrett: I suspect the economic downturn has more to do with the sub-prime lending issues and massive government overspending...
Seattle, Wash.: Even though the FBI now says it wasn't ELF that burnt the multi-million dollar houses near Seattle, isn't it a problem that many so called "green" choices involve over-consumption and end up using even more resources than just choosing to live wisely in a green way? An urban resident consumes about 1/10th to 1/20th as much resources and produces a similar level (small) of greenhouse gases than a suburban resident does, right?
Leslie Garrett: Our love of suburbs has taken its toll. And buffered us from much of the consequences of our actions.
Anon: I cannot stand throwing something out if it still has "life" left to it.
I am a big fan of Craigslist, and charitable organizations. When contributing to charitable organizations, it is important to be sure they can use what you give them. If they cannot, they will just toss it -- so it ends up in the landfill anyway.
Leslie Garrett: True enough. Call first. Though even if they can't use the item, they often have links to those who'll use parts or use the item in an unconventional way.
Leslie Garrett: Thanks very much for your questions. Thought-provoking for me...and I hope for you.
Please visit my Web site if you want to continue any dialogue or for more information about me, my book and my other work.
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