Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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2.2.2 Environmental economics and green consumerism

In economic terms, green consumerism is typically expressed using measures based on the willingness to pay (WTP) principle. As mentioned above, this takes two main forms: eco-taxation, in which environmental costs are estimated and added to the price of commodities (e.g. vehicles with high carbon emissions); and eco-labelling, in which products are labelled with relevant environmental information, such as is now required by the food industry and governments in many industrialised countries for genetically modified (GM) products.

Table 2 shows some changes in ethical consumerism trends from 2005 to 2006, relating particularly to green consumerism in the UK. The information is taken from a report commissioned by The Co-operative Bank (2007, p. 5).

Table 2 Ethical consumerism in the UK, 2005–2006

Spend (2005)Spend (2006)Growth (2005–2006)
Ethical food and drink
Free-range eggs£240m£259m8%
Free-range poultry£100m£116m16%
Farmers’ markets£210m£225m7%
Vegetarian products£639m£664m4%
Freedom Food£16m£17m6%
Sustainable fish£17m£55m224%
Dolphin-friendly tuna£218m£223m2%
Food and drink boycotts£993m£1214m22%
Green home
Energy-efficient appliances£1661m£1824m10%
Energy-efficient boilers£1366m£1471m8%
Green mortgage repayments£385m£396m3%
Energy-efficient light bulbs£18m£26m44%
Ethical cleaning products£27m£34m26%
Sustainable timber£716m£696m−3%
Green energy£54m£127m135%
Rechargeable batteries£35m£42m20%
Buying for reuse – household products£1330m£1291m−3%
Eco-travel and transport
Public transport£377m£682m81%
Responsible tour operators£101m£103m2%
Environmental tourist attractions£16m£18m13%
Green cars£98m£96m−2%
Travel boycotts£1030m£817m−21%
Ethical personal products
Ethical clothing£29m£52m79%
Ethical cosmetics£317m£386m22%
Charity shops£411m£359m−13%
Buying for reuse – clothing£421m£360m−14%
Clothing boycotts£281m£338m20%
Real nappies£5m£7m40%

Activity 10 Green consumerism on a personal level

Compare the statistically informed percentage changes in trends shown in Table 2 with any changes in your own lifestyle in recent years. Which aspects of green consumerism do you least and most identify with? What might account for your lifestyle choices? Do you find the indices in the table helpful as measures of accountability?

Green consumerism can reflect different values and to some extent may even serve to change people’s environmental values. But perhaps the values of consumerism itself need further challenging. Arguing against green consumerism, Des Jardins (2001, pp. 86–8) outlines three concerns that might be translated as follows.

  1. Green consumerism reinforces or sustains the existing economic system responsible for the environmental crisis. There is a concern regarding the uneven distribution of costs associated with green consumerism. Costs tend to be borne exclusively by those who care most about the environment rather than those responsible for damaging it. Green consumerism effectively violates the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Instead, it legitimises pollution for those able to pay for it. Radical writers in the Marxist tradition might see green consumerism as a mere reflection of general consumerist values associated with capitalism. Thus David Luckin (2000) warns that eco-taxation might have regressive effects. For example, taxes on energy use and transport might be a further burden on poorer households unless mitigating or compensatory measures are employed. In the same tradition, Neil Maycroft (2000) suggests that green consumerism only sustains the more general consumerist imperatives of capitalism: expanding markets geographically, expanding the intensity of commodity production, and expanding the commodification of externalities (resources that do not have any direct exchange value in the market).

  2. Green consumerism perpetuates values of materialism to the detriment of promoting alternative ethical values. Luckin (2000), amongst others such as Mark Sagoff, makes the point that green consumerism reduces democratic debate about issues of environmental ethics to focus solely on material incentives. Green consumerism, based on individual moral choices about consumer goods, undermines another, more efficient and effective political-economy model of action – collective action by means of ethical debate aimed at influencing public policy.

  3. Green consumerism perpetuates an anthropocentric view of the natural world. Since green consumerism is a human economic activity, it carries with it an implicit reinforcement of anthropocentrism. Paavola (2001) points out the danger that green consumerism may generate an ‘elitist alternative lifestyle’. Rather than providing an expression of alternative ecocentric values, green consumerism may simply provide moral satisfaction for a minority group (Figure 6). The ‘politics of distinction’, as Paavola calls it, may actually prevent rather than facilitate the uptake of environmentally benign lifestyles based on less anthropocentric values.

Figure 6 ‘Green’ consumerism

A central problem with environmental economics, and the guidance it provides in terms of policy and individual consumer behaviour, is the inevitable anthropocentric basis on which valuations are made. Economic modelling remains the key driver. This raises the question of whether other disciplines, including the social and biophysical sciences, might be better situated to inform economics.

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