Last Thursday, the New York Times had an interesting piece on green consumption during the recession. The article provided very interesting examples from people who try to live sustainable life, including two of our colleagues on the green media world, Lloyd Alter of Treehugger and David Quilty of The Good Human.
The article pointed out that we see a change in the patterns of green consumption due to the difficult economic environment, shifting the focus from premium green products to frugality – goodbye new bamboo shirts, hello homemade cleaning materials. But is the new model of green consumption (i.e. green consumption 2.0) really just about abandoning Whole Foods and adopting frugality? Not necessarily.
First, I have to say something about Whole Foods. In a way it has become a symbol of green consumption 1.0, and it also became very popular to criticize it for its expensive prices. David Quilty told the NY Times reporter that he stopped shopping there for produce and now buys fruit and vegetables at a farmers’ market, which “is much cheaper than Whole Foods.”
Surprisingly, Whole Foods is performing well despite the weak economy, so I guess there are still plenty of people who shop there. Still, I don’t see how not buying at Whole Foods is a sign of frugality – to me it would be the same as saying that not buying clothes at Bergdorf Goodman is a sign of frugality. I just see it as a sign of reasonable shopping and to those who just found out about the affordable green opportunities outside of Whole Foods I’d say, welcome to the club!
I would agree that frugality is an important element shaping green consumption 2.0. It’s actually no wonder that we see a growing number of people growing their own food, buying secondhand clothes at thrift shops or making their own cleaning materials at home. These affordable alternatives provide the same value ‘regular’ green products are providing, and actually have even higher value in the sense that you have the satisfaction of using or eating the fruit of your labor (in a thrift shop it might be the satisfaction of re-using something and making it valuable again).
Still, frugality is just one among a few main characteristics changing green consumption. First, there’s the shift towards collaborative consumption. Whether it is car sharing, swapping clothes and shoes on SwapStyle.com or couch surfing, we see a growing popularity of services offering people a more efficient way to use resources. These are not new concepts, but accessible and user-friendly digital platforms combined with a growing need to find affordable solutions. In many of these services there’s also an added value, whether it’s a sense of community or meeting new people for example, which is something you couldn’t get in the former model of green consumption.
Another important element is localization of green consumption. David Quilty advocates for farmers markets, saying “if the produce isn’t organic, at least it’s local.” He’s right, and he’s not the only one advocating local over organice. Although the organic foods sector is still on the rise (though, as the article mentions, growth rates dropped to less than 6 percent in 2010, from between 15 and 20 percent previously), there’s a feeling that local is IN and organic is OUT. The number of farmers markets is on rise and so are CSA programs, spreading to meat, fish, baking goods and even beer. Also here there’s the push of technology helping to produce cheaper local food or create more efficient CSA platforms.
Let’s be realistic – green consumption 2.0 might not get you everything you want. So you might end up not having all of your produce from organic sources or the new Nissan LEAF, both mentioned in the article as examples of things green consumers want but can’t afford now. Yet, it’s not the end of the world because green consumption 2.0 might get you great local produce farmed with organic principals or very little pesticide and help you with a car sharing service and maybe even a good deal on a second-hand bike. These might not be perfect solutions, but they are cheaper, greener, and even promote many times well-being on the community level. So the bottom line is that you find yourself getting more for less.
Eventually, even when the economy recovers, we might find that the economic distress was the best thing that happened to green consumption, focusing it on resourcefulness and innovation to beat the ever growing obstacles. If and when green consumption reaches mainstream, it will be this sort of evolution that will make it happen.
Image credit: Liz du Canada, Flickr Creative Commons
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.