Can we spend our way to a better world, or is consumerism the problem?
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. "We know that people buy socks, toilet paper, and cat litter, and they can either buy the crappy corporate stuff or the good, green, socially-responsible stuff. That's the choice," he said.
But Ahmadi sees a flaw in this premise. As long as progress is measured and defined by economic growth the neverending requirement of the capitalist system society will continue to fall short of sustainability targets, no matter what kind of products people buy, he said.
"At some point there is a threshold, even for green products, when the net benefits of producing the product will be surpassed," he said. "We need to go back to the framework that the economy is currently based on. At the moment, perpetual growth is the only way to assign value. But this linear way of thinking is dangerous to the sustainability of the planet. We must define value differently."
More than 125 speakers attended the event, including Democracy Now! founder Amy Goodman, nutrition expert Marion Nestle, and Mayor Gavin Newsom. Some even emphasized the tension inherent in staging the festival.
"It's a good thing and a bad thing. People leave more conscious and aware, but they also leave a tremendous footprint getting here and leaving," said CEO of Gather restaurant Ari Derfel, who spoke on the main stage in front of a piece of art made from a year's worth of his own trash. "People do engage in gross consumerist behavior. But they also get engaged with some companies that are doing incredible things."
Although he added that a green future must go beyond that represented at the Green Festival, he acknowledged that it represents the period of transition we now live in. "We can't go from A to Z without touching on all the letters in between. And we are still in a consumer-based, material goods economy. We couldn't make one wholesale swoop in one day."
Yet for Derrick Jensen, environmental activist and author of Endgame a book that questions the inherently unsustainable nature of modern civilization events like the Green Festival don't really address the real problems at the center of the sustainability movement.
"I don't see it as a transition," said Jensen, who made a speech at the event a few years ago. "It is not nearly sufficient. Now there is an attempt to add the word "green" before something and pretend that we're actually going to make a significant difference. But this is problematic."
The problem, as he sees it, is that attendees simply learn to accept the existing economic system and even believe it can become sustainable. They come to think that buying the right socks or toilet paper is helping to save the planet.
"Where is the overtly revolutionary material?" Jensen asked. "Where is the acknowledgement that capitalism needs to come down, or the discussion of the psychopathology of those in power? They talk only of alternative economies, but look what happened to every alternative economy they get taken over and consumed by mainstream culture."
Jensen added that the notion of basing a revolution on changes to personal consumption is not only inherently flawed but dangerously misinformed. "This sort of festival is based on the mistaken notion that personal consumption represents a significant portion of the economy," he said. "In reality, 1,600 pounds of trash are produced per capita. If I reduce that to zero, it's great. But per capita waste production by industries is on average 26 tons. That is 97 percent of all waste.
"This festival can make you feel good for one day, but then you just go back to normal life," he added. "And in some ways, it's a real distraction. It makes people identify as consumers rather than citizens who have a whole range of resistance methods rather than just to buy or not buy."
Although Danaher stressed that each company at the festival went through Green America's screening process where they are subject to almost 250 questions analyzing their true social and environmental impact Jensen said even "green" products often rely on the wasteful industrial system to be manufactured and transported.
"It is not difficult to see. You just can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. The hyper-exploitation of even renewable resources won't last, by definition. For any economic system to be sustainable, it has to benefit the land base it is based on."
Many of the companies at the event had obtained Green America's sought-after Seal of Approval, which takes into account issues including the company's manufacturing and marketing of products, as well as treatment of employees and effects on surrounding communities. At the same time, certain corporations that didn't meet those criteria, like eBay, were invited anyway and labeled "corporate innovators."
Hamler said these are corporations that are moving toward social and environment responsibility, and they are still subject to a very strict review. Noting that only 60 out of every 300 corporations make the cut, she emphasized the changing nature of markets and the place for corporations within them.
Yet for Ahmadi, the very idea that large corporations can be a part of this change is misleading. "Even if a majority of their product line is green, the global ecological footprint of a corporation will almost always be beyond measure," he said. "The notion of consolidated corporations is counter to the diversity we need to create an equitable and sustainable economy."
While the Green Festival offsets the carbon emissions of its organizers and hosts carbon-offsetting companies, it doesn't pretend to be a carbon-neutral event that covers anywhere near all its vendors and attendees. Indeed, environmental activist Josh Hart said that the system of carbon offsets whereby people, companies, and states can claim to reduce their carbon emissions by investing in carbon-friendly projects elsewhere represents yet another move in the wrong direction.
Hart went to festival as a representative of Cheatneutral, a satirical company that claims to offset romantic infidelity by paying someone else to be faithful. He said he wanted to expose the "pink elephant in the room" that no one else seemed to discuss at the festival.
"Offsetting is just another way of using the psychological technique of denial. It says you can carry on as normal but pay someone else to be green. This is the wrong approach and it is a fiction, not a reality," he told us. "The festival is putting itself forward as green, but people are doing this really unsustainable thing: flying out to the conference from all around the country for a few days and then leaving. This acts as a greater disservice to what we really need to be doing."
Although Lee did not yet know the carbon emissions total from this year's festival, she said the five green festivals from last year produced about 900 tons of carbon - the equivalent of roughly 355 roundtrip cross-continental flights not including electricity, product consumption, or local travel.
But for Hart, this number represents a "massive underestimate" of the true carbon footprint, considering the number of people who attended the San Francisco event alone. He said the festival should take into account all the people who flew to the event, including company representatives and ticket-buyers, not just festival staff.
"The CO2 from a roundtrip flight from New York to San Francisco is around 2,280 kg, the equivalent of running a refrigerator for more than 22 years. It's more than running a car all year," he said. "It's staggering, really, how much carbon flying emits, and how incompatible aviation is with anything purporting to be green."
He added: "I think this issue goes straight to the battle over the heart of the green movement. Are we going to tell people that going green is easy and gloss over the difficult realities? Or are we going to be honest about the science that tells us that dramatic changes in lifestyles are required, in particular how we get around and what we consume?"
Yet for activists like Jenson, the extent to which the festival is carbon neutral is insignificant compared to the role the festival could play as a catalyst for future action.
"It is not the role of the activist to navigate systems of oppressive power, but instead to confront and take down those systems," Jensen said. "The point is, as far as an event like the Green Festival explicitly puts itself up as part of a larger culture of resistance, then I don't have a problem with it. But if it suggests that in any way it is remotely sufficient to what we're facing, then we have a problem."