Shades of green

Can we spend our way to a better world, or is consumerism the problem?
A speaker at the Green Festival
Photo by Sarah Morrison

Can "green" consumerism help "green" the planet? In other words, can we spend our way to a better future? Or is the demand for more environmentally benign products and services just a way of making people feel better while delaying capitalism's inevitable day of reckoning?

To explore these questions, consider the San Francisco Green Festival, the second-most attended green festival in the world and what organizers say is the country's largest sustainability event. More than 40,000 people and 350 companies visited the eighth annual festival, held last month at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center.

The emphasis of the event was on the power of purchasing. Just about everything was for sale, from fair-trade chocolate and hemp sweaters to paper journals made from Sri Lankan elephant dung. Certified "green" companies were happy to spend from $5,000 to $100,000 for their stalls and passersby shopped for guilt-free gifts. But critics of the trend question whether green consumption is ever better than no consumption at all.

"I believe we are getting to the point of urgency. We are beyond incremental reform and need significant structural change," said Brahm Ahmadi, cofounder and executive director of People's Grocery. "What we really need to do is fundamentally shift the level of consumerism — not just shift into the consumption of more sustainable things — but realize that we need to consume less as a society."

The 2008 Living Planet Report, produced by the World Wildlife Fund, indicates that our global footprint now exceeds the world capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent. The report notes that if demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s, we will need to the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

Ahmadi said trade-show events like the Green Festival can function as a good point of entry for people interested in reducing their own ecological footprint, but added that they don't go nearly far enough in addressing the problem. They may even hinder people's understanding of what needs to be done.

"The problem is that the words "green," "local," and "sustainable" can be used interchangeably now. They have become another sort of brand element in marketing," he said. "If this festival is the first step in a multistep strategy on how to change the planet, then that is great. But impressions aren't set up in a way that puts the consumer on the path to a longer-term perspective."

For example, the Green Festival isn't local. Although festival organizers say it promotes local companies that make green products, a spokeswoman admitted that about 40 percent of the exhibitors reside more than 150 miles from the site — the criteria one must meet to be deemed local by the festival.

Kevin Danaher, founder of Green Festivals and the cofounder of Global Exchange, told the Guardian that the festival costs almost $1 million to put on and makes $10,000–$30,000 in profit each year. He stressed that the aim of the event is to accelerate the transition to a green economy, an economy he says "will make better profits by saving nature rather than destroying it.

"We are trying to take enterprise away from big corporations and redefine it," Danaher continued. "For us, free enterprise should mean the freedom for everybody to be enterprising, the realization that alternative business models can make better profits than traditional ones."

Although Danaher claims the festival is an "enterprise-based event that encourages people to consume less," he believes it's better to meet consumer demand with a green-mind business than leave it to be filled by a multinational corporation.

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