In Defense of Sustainable Business

The Trap of Green Consumerism? Why Raj Patel & George Monbiot Get It Wrong

by Ethan Genauer

Friday, November 27, 2009

The day after millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, "Black Friday," is famous for discounts that lure consumers into stores and the beginning of Christmas shopping-spree season. But in recent years, it has also become fodder for an anti-consumerist backlash. "Stop buying crap no one needs and spend some real time with loved ones," say the organizers of "Buy Nothing Day."

Ordinarily, I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly. In daily life, I endeavor to not buy stuff as much as possible. I strive to minimize my personal role in depletion of non-renewable resources, build relationships with others that go deeper than dollars, and avoid paying taxes that are used primarily to fuel the unrelenting U.S. war machine. But when well-meaning folks extend this justified antipathy for consumerism to something that I believe everyone needs — sustainably produced food — I am forced to draw the line and speak out for shopping!

Altruism, generosity, and social awareness "are killed by the act of purchase," University of California eco-intellectual Raj Patel declared in his November 18th Civil Eats blog post, "The Trap of Green Consumerism." With his specific call for people to ask what farmers want as our preferred alternative to fair trade and 'green' labels, Patel implies that those of us who actually practice sustainable agriculture — rather than just writing about it as academics, like he does — are somehow the leading bastions and beneficiaries of a critique and movement against our supposed common enemy of "green consumerism."

But if he really asked local and sustainable farmers what we want, Patel would probably find little of the hostility against green consumerism that he expects. While many farmers — especially those cultivating grassroots food justice movements — do indeed feel severe frustration with the limitations inherent in capitalist markets, and we are eager to explore new ways to expand low-income people's access to good food without regard for money or profit, we are also adamant that we cannot survive, let alone thrive, if we don't receive fair wages for our labor as farm owners and workers and decent prices for our produce. In the context of America's lopsidedly dollar-driven economy, many farmers would agree that green consumerism per se is not the biggest enemy of environmentally benevolent and socially just agriculture, but rather — as much as some of us may love to hate it — is currently one of the key and indispensable forces that enables us to continue our work of building vibrant sustainable food systems.

By advancing thinly supported arguments that skewer fair trade labeling and green consumerism, instead of supporting sustainable agriculture, Patel and his fellow green-consumption grinch George Monbiot have unwittingly entered into an unholy alliance with the Earth-destroying beasts of industrial agribusiness. Marketing agents for Monsanto, Cargill, Kraft and their corporate kin must be eagerly taking notes for their next cynical crusade to undermine sustainable food movements. Smart, ethical consumers should, as usual, read between the lines … and not fall for clever spin that only sounds good on paper (or packaging)!

Under the guise that buying green products "can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behavior," Patel and Monbiot blithely criticize the entire sprawling, diverse field of progressive human enterprise that aims to protect and sustain the environment and human rights by adapting and integrating — not rejecting — the profit motive. This conclusion itself is based upon nothing more than a psychological study by University of Toronto researchers in the field of experimental "game theory." While this study is derived only from hypothetical laboratory-based tests on human subjects, the practical extreme to which Patel and Monbiot apply it could have very serious and dangerous real-world effects. After all, we must remember that agribusiness corporations themselves have always been the first and foremost combatants in the battle to limit, muzzle, co-opt and neuter the rise and spread of green labeling and informed consumer choices.

Genetically engineered (GE) foodstuffs are a prime case in point. In the US, the majority of consumers have consistently said, in polls, that food products containing GE ingredients should be labeled. But when a 1990s Vermont labeling law required dairy products from cows treated with GE recombinant growth hormone (rBST) to be labeled as such, Monsanto went ballistic. The biotech giant's lawyers argued before a US federal Court of Appeals that this GE labeling statute violated the corporations' "negative free speech" rights of the First Amendment — in other words, their right to silence. In a huge loss for consumer freedom, the court then decided on behalf of Monsanto and dairy industry corporations, judging that it was illegal for the Vermont labeling law to require them to make involuntary statements.

The court ruled: "Although the Court is sympathetic to the Vermont consumers who wish to know which products may derive from rBST-treated herds, their desire is insufficient to permit the State of Vermont to compel the dairy manufacturers to speak against their will. Were consumer interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production methods… Instead, those consumers interested in such information should exercise the power of their purses by buying products from manufacturers who voluntarily reveal it."

The evolution of food labeling regimes in the US has been defined by this legal context. Agribusiness corporations, with government collusion, have defeated every attempt by concerned consumers to improve their environmental behavior — or else reduce their market share — through the power of positive labeling of GE ingredients (or other types of critical information such as exploitative labor practices or inhumane animal treatment) that they have placed in food products. Thus, conscientious consumers and sustainable producers have had no choice but to create alternative "green" and "fair trade" labels — including organic certification — to identify the foods that are not produced with practices that damage our health, environment, and human rights.

In doing so, these labels have helped substantially to bolster the economic viability of small-scale and middle-sized sustainable food producers and to expand the markets that specialize in their goods. Labels have not, it is true, succeeded at transforming the vast bulk of industrial agribusiness. However, we are mistaken if we fail to realize that it was never the intent of alternative labeling systems to lead to this kind of large-scale transformation in the first place! If such wholesale change could happen as a consequence of alternative labels, it would be miraculous and wonderful. Yet in the absence of this success, we should not excoriate labels as the scapegoat for the corruption of our political institutions, the unadulterated ease with which agribusiness corporations have purchased power and avoided regulation, and the general inability or unwillingness of people to effectively fight back.

To the extent that individuals really believe that green labels and consumerism can transform the world, they do need to be disabused of that notion. In the US, where the logic of capitalism dominates public discourse and rules so much of most people's daily lives, this is truly an important task. But instead of simply haranguing people for making better (greener) choices in their consumption patterns and for having the naivete to think that it matters, the job of eco-intellectuals such as Patel and Monbiot should be to articulate clear paths to deeper and more substantive change. And at this point, it is not enough to merely preach the trite and functionally empty gospel, as Patel does, urging people to come to terms with "political challenges that will be solved not by shopping, but by civic engagement."

Americans have attempted the route of "civic engagement," and discovered to our dismay that it doesn't work as advertised — at least, not while corporations and their elected (or appointed) puppets keep politics in a state of gridlock. Americans mobilized in massive numbers to try to transform the 2008 Farm Bill, and then voted Barack Obama into the White House. These efforts have resulted in some marginal victories for community-based and sustainable agriculture, but America's fundamental agri-industrial political power structures — billions of dollars in subsidies for commodity crops and high-level federal appointments of pesticide-pushing, GE-favoring corporate lobbyists — have remained strongly in force. In the face of this entrenched status quo, the growing appetite of Americans for green consumerism has been one of the few effective counterweights enabling the development of local and sustainable food systems.

Don't get me wrong: I am all for building a solidarity economy fueled by generosity and abundance, not money and scarcity, in which universal adherence to environmentally benign and socially just standards of production renders the profit motive and the consumerist mentality itself alien to human experience.

For years, I have struggled to create this utopian world by working with cooperative grassroots volunteer-based projects such as Food Not Bombs, through which people cook and share free vegetarian meals in public places — like the sidewalk outside City Hall or the community park where homeless people congregate — usually with unsold, damaged or expired food that is donated by or otherwise reclaimed from local markets. Everyone gets healthy nourishment, no one pays for it, perfectly edible food is liberated from the waste stream, and we strike a symbolic blow against society's systematic militarism that values war many orders of magnitude more than basic human sustenance.

But this is hardly a viable way to feed the masses, and it doesn't adequately address (much less liberate) the unsavory sources where most of our food come from. So what is our ultimate goal, and how do we get there? Patel is correct in saying that we need to "fight to make sure all goods" are produced with "less" (I would say zero) "cruelty, exploitation, resource-waste and culture-destruction." But in a world so far from this ideal that it isn't funny, his flippant denunciation of green labels and consumerism is worse than the wrong target. It threatens to throw out much of the hard-fought progress that sustainable food movements have already won, without providing any tangible alternative to move us forward.

At its core, Patel's argument boils down to a cynical and spurious cop-out. "After throwing a few coins in the direction of the sirens of sustainability," he says, "people can behave worse than before, their ears plugged by having bought green goods." Patel apparently believes that if some people hypothetically are able to exploit green consumerism as a moral panacea that excuses their guilt for acts of greater evil, this negates and discredits any social or environmental benefits that otherwise accrue from sustainable business. Instead of advocating for the greatest good, Patel thus pushes for the greatest moral purity. In his imaginary all-or-nothing world, it is better for people to purchase and behave badly, because this is a state of being without moral confusion or unfair effacement of individual guilt, than to utilize green consumerism as a progressive-if-imperfect platform that presses people to collectively behave better.

We urgently need analysis that, yes, criticizes the insufficiency of green consumerism as a sole method to save the planet, but nevertheless doesn't disparage the necessity of it as one solution among many and as a starting point from which lots of people can become engaged with their responsibility to participate in deeper and more radical change. We also need to clearly, concisely and specifically envision how this deeper and more radical change can happen.

To quote Derrick Jensen, who perhaps has done more than anyone else to articulate this kind of nuanced analysis through his essays and books, particularly The Endgame, "We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems." In this case, the oppressive power of industrial agribusiness is the enemy — not green markets and labeling. Let's keep our eyes on the prize, and avoid the trap of bringing down friends and allies through the misguided rhetoric of extreme greener-than-thou moral purity. Ultimately, the problems that we are facing — endless war, global warming, resource depletion, poverty, overpopulation, pollution, species extinctions — are infinitely bigger than any individual acts of consumption. Instead of throwing out green consumerism, we must build upon its successes, and still go much further to actively confront and dismantle the entrenched systems of power that prefer us to remain locked in our passive role as consumers.

Unless and until we mobilize a mass movement to take down and transform the U.S. legal, political and economic systems upholding the fiction that corporations possess the same constitutional rights as individuals, along with other hallmarks of corporate power, it is fruitless to blame green consumers for their failure to spur large-scale meaningful change.

//Ethan Genauer is a freelance journalist and grassroots activist for food and environmental justice. When not on the road, he lives and farms in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of his blogs is "New Mexico Young Farmers Rise Up!" —

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