I’m So Tired Of Being Green
One recent poll showed that American consumers are increasingly unlikely to spend money on energy-efficient goods and services.
By Susan H. Greenberg
Jun 28, 2008
I'll admit it: I am a lapsed recycler. When confronted recently with an empty jar of peanut butter, rather than soak it in hot water to remove every last smear before placing it in the recycling bin, I simply tossed the jar in the trash can (and quickly covered it with greasy paper towels to avert the wrath of my eco-fanatic husband). In my mind, I made a quick and highly unscientific calculation: saving the planet from one little plastic jar wasn't worth my time or the hot water necessary to clean it.
I may be wrong about that. But the fact is, I don't know what to believe anymore. I'm sick of everyone from Al Gore to the guy who mows my grass telling me to "go green."
I'm tired of sifting through the "eco-safe" claims of products as diverse as cleansers, cars and cookies: recycled, recyclable, reusable, organic, all-natural, environmentally friendly, environmentally preferable, environmentally safe, biodegradable, compostable, ozone-friendly, zero-carbon, carbon-neutral … the list is limited only by the imaginations of the marketing geniuses who developed it.
We are drowning in so many vague, dubious or breathlessly hyped assertions that sometimes it's easier just to throw the sticky peanut-butter jar away.
"Confusion creates inner shock," says Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a U.S. marketing firm that monitors America's environmental pulse. "And when consumers are confused, they just do nothing."
I am not alone in my green fatigue. The Shelton Group's latest study, Energy Pulse 2007, revealed that between 2006 and 2007, Americans' enthusiasm for energy-efficient products and services fell across the board. [See: Energy Pulse® 2007:Where American Consumers Stand on Renewable Energy, Conservation and Energy-Efficient Products, Services and Homes, at: http://www.energypulse.org/comprehensive.php ; National Survey: Consumers Face ‘Green Fatigue’ Focused on Price as Much as ‘Greenwashing’ - Energy Pulse 2007, Shelton Group Press Release (Oct. 9, 2007) at: http://www.energypulse.org/PDFs/EP07-GreenFatigue.pdf ; ].
[“In the past few years, consumers have been bombarded by the marketing messages of companies jumping on the green-friendly bandwagon,” said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group, which independently sponsored the study. “People are becoming much more inquiring about the bill of green goods being sold to them – not only in terms of ‘is it as ‘green’ as what they say it is?,’ but also ‘does it matter enough to me to pay extra’?” According to Shelton, ‘energy-efficient’ is consistently equated to ‘more expensive’ in the minds of consumers. “What consumers are often fatigued about in 2007 is the price differential – or at least the perceived price differential,” Shelton said. “But saying ‘save money’ when advertising an energy-efficient product isn’t necessarily good enough. Our research shows that consumers want proof..."].
Among its findings: the number of green or energy-efficient activities consumers said they participated in—such as recycling or riding a bike to work instead of driving—dropped from an average of 3.63 in 2006 to 3.0 last year. Furthermore, the number of respondents who considered energy efficiency "important/extremely important" in deciding whether to buy a product fell from 72 to 67 percent. "We are really seeing a backlash to the whole green thing," says Shelton. "We've tested environmental messaging for some clients lately, and we get a lot of eye rolls and deep sighs. We hear things like 'I'm so tired of the green label being slapped on everything,' 'I'm so tired of being guilted into being green'."
A new field, eco-psychology, has even arisen to help people cope with their mounting "eco-anxiety"—worries not just about the planet's health but also about their own environmental inadequacies. Melissa Pickett, a self-proclaimed eco-psychologist and president of the SoulWays Center for Conscious Evolution, believes it's only a matter of time before insurance companies recognize it as a treatable psychological ailment. "I compare it to PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," she says. "Years ago, there wasn't a label for it. There isn't a diagnostic label [now] for green fatigue or eco-anxiety. At some point there probably will be."
We can only hope to live so long. The growing sense of green fatigue stems in part from the feeling that no matter what we do, it will never be enough. I own a Toyota Camry hybrid, have replaced roughly a third of our light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones —though I should confess I've changed a few back to incandescent because the time delay and cold light drove me crazy—and recycle fairly religiously, hard-to-clean containers notwithstanding. Yet judging from the daily news, the earth's predicament grows only more dire: Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie has pulled out of the Olympic marathon because of Beijing's toxic pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently found that 345 of 700 American counties monitored had air quality considered unsafe to breathe. "The discussion about changing our light bulbs, about washing our laundry on a lower setting, all seem to be very petty approaches to what is being described as a great climate catastrophe," says James Panton, cofounder of the Manifesto Club, which is committed to preventing ecological disaster without limiting human potential. "Changing a light bulb isn't the way forward."
So what is? Environmental experts seem to agree that the best way to jolt consumers out of their green daze is to instigate reforms from the top down, like putting a price on carbon and including airline emissions in CO2-reduction targets. "If there were stronger infrastructural changes, then you would have a clear lead from the political and economic leadership of our society, and you won't have that kind of fatigue," says Tim Baster, executive director of the U.K.'s Climate Outreach and Information Network.
[IN OTHER WORDS, THESE BUREAUCRAT-GURUS ADVOCATE IN FAVOR OF TOP-DOWN PROSCRIPTIVE REGULATION WHICH INSTRUCTS PEOPLE CONCERNING WHAT THEY CAN & CANNOT DO. THIS OBVIOUSLY WOULD LEAVE LITTLE TO CHOICE OR CHANCE - SO MUCH FOR INDIVIDUAL FREEDOMS!!]
"It's individuals who get demoralized. There has to be collective action." It takes a village to recycle a peanut-butter jar. [LONG LIVE SOCIALISM!!]
Have you got green fatigue?
You recycle and buy local – but the earth's still warming and the ice cap's still melting. If you're starting to feel apathy creeping in, you're not the only one.
By Hugh Wilson
The Independent UK
20 September 2007
Recent environmental messages have made such an impact on a friend of mine that, a couple of weeks ago, he broke a four-year prohibition and walked back into Burger King. "Intensive beef production, clone town Britain, just so much blah," he said, by way of explanation. "Nobody else really seems to be doing much about it, so why should I bother?"
My friend is the embodiment of one of the great fears of the environmental lobby. Fifteen years ago, the term "compassion fatigue" indicated a general disillusionment with fund-raising concerts and famine appeals. The cause was too hopeless, governments too apathetic, and individuals too impotent. Slowly, and for similar reasons, the term "green fatigue" has started to creep into the dinner-party conversations of the composting classes.
And, if anything, with more reason. Environmental campaigners worry that individuals see their actions as largely irrelevant when set against the enormity of global climate change. While famine appeals parade a simple, striking message – send a tenner, save a child – no such easy cause and effect exists for global warming. By contrast, the solutions to climate change seem hugely complex and controversial.
"The problems we face are of a magnitude no one has seen in at least two generations," says Alex Steffen, the executive editor of WorldChanging, a website and book that promote innovative solutions for sustainable living. "The scale of the actions people are being told to take by green consumerism groups and businesses, on the other hand, are so small as to seem meaningless. I think that more and more people see this widening gulf and lose hope."
And if we're not all losing hope just yet, many of us are becoming increasingly cynical. To campaigners, that's not surprising. As Steffen suggests, businesses have turned environmentalism into a marketing strategy. A new term, "green-washing", describes companies that paint a superficial green gloss on conventional business practices. When firms such as BP and Wal-Mart parade their environmentally friendly credentials, scepticism is not only inevitable, says Steffen, it's "a necessary antidote".
At least the green lobby can count on celebrities to spread the message. Unfortunately, the message too often seems to be, "do as I say, not as I do". Celebrity is an intrinsically unsustainable condition. The reaction to the Live Earth concerts – which prompted as much debate on the carbon footprint of the A-listers who'd been chauffeured in for the occasion as the campaign they were there to endorse – showed the insidious spread of green fatigue.
It could have been worse. In the States, Sheryl Crow's "Stop Global Warming College Tour" was panned for stipulating parking for three tractor-trailers, four buses and six cars. John Travolta recently urged the British public to "do their bit" to combat global warming after flying in on his private Boeing 707, and got trounced in the press for his efforts. None of this is likely to keep the public on side in the long run – and countering climate change is likely to be a very long run indeed. [GREEN HYPOCRISY BREEDS CONSUMER SKEPTICISM & GREEN FATIGUE.]
Even the pronouncements of more committed celebrities can seem, well, a little misjudged. A new book, edited by the socialite and former model Sheherazade Goldsmith, the wife of the Ecologist editor Zac, advises concerned greens to keep geese and make their own goat's cheese. As my sceptical friend said: "The goose can stay on the balcony, but I doubt you'd call it free-range."
Of course, many celebrities and businesses now offset their carbon emissions by paying for trees to be planted in sustainable forests or investments made in green energy projects. But "magic bullet" solutions to climate change are quickly losing their sheen. Recent investigations – including a widely trailed Dispatches programme on Channel 4 – question the effectiveness of carbon offsetting and suggest that it might even be counterproductive.
Some environmentalists worry that carbon offsetting promotes the idea that if you throw a few quid at the problem you can carry on as normal. According to Michael R Solomon, the author of Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having and Being: "Consumers are always going to gravitate toward a more parsimonious solution that requires less behavioural change. We know that new products or ideas are more likely to be adopted if they don't require us to alter our routines very much."
Unfortunately, most environmentalists agree that altering our routines quite fundamentally is the only real way to save the planet. Meanwhile, another "magic bullet" solution – and one that would also allow many of us to carry on pretty much as normal – is coming in for unexpected criticism: a recent study has suggested that any widespread uptake of biofuels in Europe could decimate Asian rainforests.
What all this adds up to, experts fear, is a recipe for disillusionment and – eventually – disengagement. Psychologically, we're primed to walk away from problems that are too complex to understand and too difficult to solve, and we'll break into a run if we think cynical marketers and self-publicising celebrities are jumping on a green bandwagon. And green campaigners who think a deluge of apocalyptic information will cut through our cynicism are probably mistaken.
"In an information-filled world, people screen heavily what new information they let in, and I suspect that the run-of-the-mill global-warming story is just not crossing the threshold," says the climate scientist Dr Susanne Moser, the co-author of Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. By run-of-the-mill, she means those all-too-familiar stories about melting ice shelves or endangered species. "Thinking about a global, complex, challenging, and potentially very dangerous and disastrous thing and not knowing what to do about it makes us go numb or into denial."
The antidote to numbness and denial is a sense of progress, of things getting better. But in the fight against climate change, progress is hard to come by. Moser uses the analogy of a diet. How long would you stay on a diet that demanded stringent effort over a prolonged period and promised only that that your weight gain might slow down a bit? Let's face it, it wouldn't make the cover of Grazia.
She also admits that "we have terribly failed our audience" by focusing on apocalyptic scenarios and complex science. Instead, one key factor in keeping people enthused in the fight against climate change will be local, collective action, she says.
"Why do people go to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to Weight Watchers? Because in a group of like-minded people they have the support, accountability, peer pressure and the shared experience of others to help make the change. They also have opportunities to come together, check on progress, and get support around setbacks. That's what we need for climate change – to recover from our fuel addiction."
Progress on a small and local scale – such as saving a beloved local shop, voting in a councillor who will push green issues, or increasing local recycling rates – and even a desire to keep up with the Joneses ("if everybody's ditching the gas-guzzler, I'll do it, too") are far more effective motivators than media-inspired guilt and vague fears of an uncertain future, she adds.
Alex Steffen also believes in the need for a local, community focus. But he says that we need to be honest about the scale of the changes that have to be made, and to counter green fatigue by imbuing the fight against climate change with an almost heroic spirit.
"I don't think we need to sugar-coat the challenges we face," he says. "We just need to ask people to rise to their real potential, and see that this is our moment for greatness. If we create a sustainable future for everyone, it will be an accomplishment as great as winning the Second World War.
"Many environmentalists assume people won't do anything more than small steps, and hope those small steps will build the political will for more substantive changes. But history has shown a thousand times that "regular" people are capable of extraordinary courage, dedication and ingenuity when asked to answer the call. It's time we put out that call, rather than another marketing pitch."
The small actions that can make a big difference
* You've heard it before, but changing to energy-efficient light bulbs really can make a difference. Lighting uses 20 per cent of the world's electricity, the equivalent of burning 600,000 tons of coal a day. Phasing out old bulbs would avoid the release of 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.
* Shop local. If your food shopping amounts to £100 a week, that's £5,200 a year that could be going into the pocket of a local butcher, grocer and baker, rather than the supermarket till. Imagine if 100 people in your area had the same idea.
* Is recycling really worth it? Yes. Recycling one glass jar saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Glass can be reused an infinite number of times. Think of all the jars recycled in your street in a year.
* Recycling a ton of paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water.
* Turning your thermostat down by two degrees can save 2,000 pounds of carbon every year.
Just imagine if everyone in your family and everyone in your office did it.