Green consumerism not what it claims

Review: Green gone wrong
By Heather Rodgers, Verso, $39
As concern about environmental problems has become mainstream, a new market niche has emerged.
Businesses are now well aware that consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental effects of products. Consequently there has been a rush of green marketing, with companies promoting themselves and their products as green—detergents, tyres, buses.

Shops are full of products claiming to be green. Even BP, one of the largest oil companies in the world, declared itself “Beyond Petroleum”.

The idea is that we can “green” (as Heather Rogers notes, you can use it as a verb now) our economy by swapping our dirty goods for clean ones as individuals. Consumers can go to the local farmers market rather than the supermarket, can buy certified fair trade products, free range rather than caged.

Heather Rogers sets out to go beyond the marketing hype and examine the world of green business, through investigating industries like organic foods, transport, and housing.

Rogers goes to the devastated rainforests of Paraguay and visits organic sugar plantations. Paraguay’s Azucarera Paraguaya (AZPA) provides one third of all organic sugar consumed in the US. AZPA is certified organic, yet the only difference between its plantations and any other farming giant appear to be the certification itself.

As well as sourcing its fertiliser from an industrial poultry farm, AZPA utilises the same mono-cropping techniques as other agribusiness. Mono-cropping, growing one species of crop on land year after year, is able to achieve huge short term yields.

However it has damaging long term consequences. The absence of crop rotation depletes soil nutrients and allows a build up of pests and disease. This increases dependence on pesticides and fertilisers.

In light of all this, it is hard to understand how AZPA plantations qualify as organic. An inspection of the USDA National Organic Programme (NOP) reveals why.

The USDA’s organic certification and inspection process is farcical. The USDA outsources inspections to private “certification agencies”. These are then hired by the very farms seeking certification. And because the certification agencies are competing with each other, their focus is on keeping clients year after year. Environmental regulation simply falls off the map.

Yet all this takes place far away from the supermarket. Far from production, all the consumer sees is the organic certification on the label.

Flimsy regulations aside, there are genuinely organic producers in the US. However these are small projects, run by individuals rather than corporations. While their production does take place on an environmentally sound basis, there are stifling obstacles to their success. The US government supports giant agribusiness through regulation and subsidies. This entrenches the monopoly of the farming giants and makes it impossible for small organic producers to compete.

Most organic producers fail to make a living, relying on a spouse to have a full-time job in the city.
According to a USDA study, the average small farm in America earns around 85 per cent of its income from “off farm sources”. The farms that do survive stay locked in the confines of “boutique farming” with a small consumer base and high prices that exclude most consumers.

Systemic problems
The great strength of Green gone wrong is that Rogers recognises that the world’s environmental problems are systemic. While investigating particular cases of environmental malpractice she succeeds in keeping a broader perspective on a system that by its very nature is ravaging the planet and its people.

For instance, the pressure of the free market forces producers to gradually renounce their organic practices and cut costs to compete. The intensive care and additional labour that environmental agriculture requires are squeezed out by an economic system which is driven by profit and nothing else.
Heather Rogers shows why we cannot trust business claims about their “green” products. More importantly, the focus on fighting environmental problems as individuals in the supermarket undermines our ability to build the collective action necessary to implement systemic change.

By focusing on ourselves as individuals we ignore the huge economic forces that benefit from the dirty economy and are wilfully obstructing the changes we need.

But Green gone wrong also contains reasons to be optimistic. Throughout Rogers’ investigations it becomes apparent that many of the solutions we need already exist. In the chapter on housing, Rogers shows the possibilities of green technology and design used in environmental communities in Germany.

Green gone wrong is unequivocal about the need for mass social movements that can raise the demands we need to protect the environment. Crucially this means not leaving the fate of the planet to the whims of markets and business, but setting a bold agenda to transition to sustainability.

In the absence of a strong environmental movement and in the face of such a massive problem, it is understandable why people have tended to look to their own lives and consumption for an easy fix. However “voting with your dollar” is clearly an illusion in a world where the richest 10 per cent of people control more than 80 per cent of the dollars.

To build social movements that are up to the task of challenging the power of those who benefit from business as usual, we will have to overcome the current focus on individual lifestyles.
Heather Rogers has made a timely intervention that should be read by everyone concerned about the future of the planet.

By Hal Hewson


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