Wednesday, August 10, 2011

caveat emptor

"They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

The always valuable blog Jetson Green links to a newly published marketing study by Scarborough Research on the lifestyles of "supergreenies," people they define as engaging in ten or more simple sustainable activities like recycling or using non-incandescent lightbulbs. Unfortunately, Jetson Green doesn't editorialize on the cynical marketing position underlying the Scarborough report, nor does the blog take issue with the report's uncritical implication that supergreeniness is some kind of luxury lifestyle choice. Nor do they point out the depressing data that show 95% of Americans won't even use reusable grocery bags, conserve water or take the bus (the low bar set for "supergreeniness"). So we'll do it for them.

The Scarborough report confirms what you probably already know: be very skeptical of anyone who throws prefixes like "eco-" and "green-" around. Calling your company EcoMart doesn't make your business any more sustainable. Publicity is not the same as policy. The Scarborough people include helpful executive summary notes in their made-for-powerpoint presentation's margins, with tips like, "green-oriented messaging and marketing can help banks connect with this consumer group on a personal level." Oy.

We don't need "messaging." We need substantive action. Television ads for fossil-fuel-burning utilities now regularly feature images of wind turbines turning against clear blue skies, and hybrid SUVs that get just 20mpg sport pretty little leaf logos on their tailgates, as ways of making people feel better about their limited energy choices.

Another alarming part of the Scarborough report is how it packages sustainable practices as "lifestyle choices" of the well off. Yes, organic produce is usually more expensive than "conventional" produce awash in pesticides, assuming you don't tally up the additional healthcare costs necessitated by a chemical-rich diet. Likewise, compact fluorescents are more expensive than incandescents, if you don't count the savings in electricity. The same point can be made about all sustainable practices: in the long run, they save money.

But more importantly, there is a social justice dimension left out of this marketing report. Healthy food, transportation and built environments ought to be available to us all, not just to those of us in the economic elite. We are citizens, not consumers, and it is cynical to restrict sustainability to those who can pay for it. Heaven help us if "green living" becomes another way to signify social status.

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