green consumerism

green consumerism
   The term ‘green consumer’ was first coined by environmental consultant John Elkington in 1986. Green consumerism was launched into the market place in September 1988 with Green Shopping Week and the publication of The Green Consumer Guide. The event had considerable media impact, and was followed up with another promotion in 1989 and other publications. The aim was to encourage consumers to be more aware of the environmental impact of the products that they bought and to mobilize consumer action to encourage manufacturers and retailers to provide ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives. The campaign tapped a widespread feeling of public concern generated by a succession of environmental scares in the media, and seemed to empower ordinary people to take action.
   Green consumerism has its antecedents in a long tradition of consumer boycotts and political consumerism. Where green consumerism differs is that it encourages consumers to buy products that are considered environmentally acceptable rather than simply to refuse those which are not. The idea is that business will respond more readily and creatively to positive market signals than to negative sanctions.
   The philosophy underpinning green consumerism is that of consumer sovereignty, the idea that in the marketplace it is the consumer rather than the producer who says what goes. This is based on an analogy between the cash register and the ballot box, which is embodied in green consumerism through its linking of consumption and citizenship. The green consumer is encouraged to act simultaneously as a citizen, making political decisions and choices, and a consumer, engaging in the day-to-day activities of consumption. In theory this opens up possibilities for new forms of action, but in practice it often creates irreconcilable tensions for consumers attempting to balance ‘saving the planet’, by shopping for what are often premium-priced products, with practical and structural constraints. This produces feelings of guilt and disillusionment. In the 1990s, green consumerism is no longer seen as a quick fix to the problems of consumption. Many environmentalists have criticized it for making only marginal changes while encouraging the continuation of unsustainably high levels of consumption. It has lost some of its appeal, as governments, businesses and consumers grapple with the complexities of changing patterns of consumption, but lives on as the rationale behind the European Union’s eco-labelling scheme.
   Further reading
    Irvine, S. (1989) ‘Consuming Fashions? The Limitsof Green Consumerism’, The Ecologist 19(3): 88–93.
   PETER SIMMONS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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