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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ecoconsumerism Gone Awry

Air Date: Week of

Buyers beware. Buying "green" is not always the environmentally friendly thing to do, according to commentator Caroline Cleaves.


CURWOOD: A number of companies and products have sprung up to help consumers make environmentally sensitive choices about the things they buy. But commentator Caroline Cleaves says that green consumerism can also result in the marketing of some products of dubious value.

CLEAVES: Since when did buying something you don't need become good for the planet? I know we need to think about the impact of what we buy. I use recycled paper towels, and I've signed up with a green energy provider. My problem is with companies hawking the notion that their goods can transform shopping from a venal and materialistic act into philanthropy. It's really just the oldest trick in the book: creating desires for products that you didn't even know you needed, until the catalogue shows up in your mailbox.

Like the one that arrived in mine recently. Its products are meant to "inspire and promote an environmentally healthy and sustainable future." Apparently, this future will include as many stupid and useless doo-dads as the present does. Here's one that baffles me: the solar-powered cappuccino frother, 40 bucks. How many people even have electric milk frothers in the first place, that a solar-powered one is such an innovation? Another stumper: the plastic bag drier, $15. Now, my husband and I reuse plastic bags. Our drying secret? We hang them on the wooden spoons in our dish drain. Maybe we should market that.

Then there's the sonic alternative to dental floss, another $40. Did I miss the news about an accumulation of dental floss threatening the delicate balance of life on earth? Is it bloating landfills, or choking sea otters? Well, whatever the dental floss problem is, the solution can't be to use more plastic and electricity.

Now I'm not saying that living a sustainable life means weaving your own hemp shoes or eating compost. We all need things. And we all want things we don't actually need. And that's okay, but let's be honest and thoughtful about why we buy what we buy. There are plenty of objects in my home that are inefficient, wasteful, even indulgent. But my dental floss and coffee maker aren't among them.

Now, show me a way to insulate my drafty house with the piles of mail-order catalogues I get every week. That I'd buy.

CURWOOD: Caroline Cleaves is a cultural anthropologist who lives in Berkeley, California.



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