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December 2002/January 2003
Shopping our Way to a Better World: Can “Green Consumerism” Save the Planet while Ensuring Social Justice?

By Fhar Miess


As Kevin Danaher and Medea Benjamin, founders of Global Exchange, are quick to point out, it’s not often that you’ll find multinational automobile manufacturer Toyota Motor Corporation sharing an exhibition hall with the radical environmental group Earth First!, but this is precisely the scenario produced by the organizers of the Green Festival in San Francisco in November (Nov. 9–10).

The festival was meant to highlight the movement for sustainable economies, ecological balance and social justice and was jointly organized by Global Exchange, Co-op America and Bioneers, mainstays of that movement establishment in the US. Organizers brought together an eclectic mix of purveyors of fair trade coffee, fair trade and “eco-friendly” textiles and crafts, solar panels, “sustainable” lumber and building materials, “clean” transportation solutions and health foods, along with environmental foundations, “sustainable” investment advocates, consumer and worker cooperatives, social justice groups, body workers and spiritual healers.

While the majority of the exhibition hall was devoted to the buying and selling of merchandise—with the typical trade fair noisy ambiance of industry folk talking shop, PA system interruptions and offers of free samples—the festival also featured a line-up of speakers, including such vehement anti-corporate voices as Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now,” and Alexander Cockburn, co-editor of CounterPunch.

Several of the featured “partners” of the event were large multinational corporations, Toyota of San Francisco being the most obvious with two hybrid cars on the exhibition hall floor. Across the aisle from Toyota’s exhibit was that of Stonyfield Farms, the nation’s fourth largest yogurt company, which uses organic milk. Stonyfield’s CEO, Gary Hirschberg, recently followed the lead of Ben Cohen (who also attended the festival) and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in selling a chunk of his company to a large corporation. Unlike Cohen and Greenfield, who sold their entire operation to Unilever, the largest packaged foods company in the world (which incidentally acquired Slimfast diet products on the same day), Hirschberg agreed only to sell a minority 40 percent stake in his company to Group Danone, the largest dairy company in the world, so he could remain in control.

Still, Hirschberg is unapologetic about joining forces with the corporate bigwigs. In a recent article he writes, “I must admit that becoming part of the mainstream, while aesthetically unappealing, has nevertheless been THE goal.” Hirshberg’s goal, like that of many of his business colleagues represented at the Green Festival, is first and foremost to capture market share. If it can be done with a “sustainable” food source, then so much the better.

Chris Pomfret, Brands Director of Birds Eye Walls, Unilever’s Frozen Food products company in the UK, went further to state that sustainability is not important simply because eco-friendly and healthy products can be marketed at a premium, but because the very survival of the company depends upon sustainability. In a March 2002 speech, he declared, “if our business is to continue, then we need to sustain our sources of supply and the only way to do that is to make them sustainable.”

But that self-preservation is not just an abstract corporate response, it is also the personal response of individual business people. Jeffery Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation, spoke at the Green Festival on the subject of “capitalism at a crossroads.” Near the beginning of his presentation, he posed the question, “is capitalism itself the problem? Should we be looking for some other structure? My answer is no,” he said. “I mean, I’m a business person, and I benefit from the system that in some ways I don’t like, but I’m not ready to throw it away.”

To be fair, Hollender, like most well-off green business people, does exhibit a sincere concern for some ecological and social justice values; otherwise, they never would have made it through the screening process that potential Green Festival vendors had to pass through. But the personal and institutional investment of Hollender and his colleagues in a capitalist economy puts him at odds with many of the anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists at the festival.

So, why were these eco-friendly, pro-business firms willing to share the event with people who consider their consumer capitalist practices antithetical to lasting social justice and ecological diversity? According to Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, organizers of the event “never hid the politics of the event and… many of the businesses that participated felt that that was OK. Many of them are in total agreement and those who aren’t I still think felt it was an important demographic group for them to reach.”

And this marketing potential cuts both ways. Patrick Reinsborough, an ecology activist, explored the flip side: “It’s an interesting model to create events that really appeal to a mainstream niche, to have a trade show and even the crass ‘come do your Christmas shopping and buy environmentally-friendly products’ and bring in a wide group of people with that and then hit them with a much deeper message.”

As he points out, however, “It’s possible to achieve an ecologically sane world that’s not necessarily democratic or just…I’m trying not to be dismissive of the kind of organizing that happens around green consumerism but to figure out how we can bridge this entry point for a lot of middle-class American people and make sure that we’re actually exposing them to a deeper analysis.” He suggests that examples such as the movements of landless peasants, small farmers and indigenous people might lead to such an analysis: one that points to the need for alternative economic arrangements that honor human and ecological value over that of capital.

While the environmental movement takes a great deal of flak for levying plenty of criticisms without suggesting any solutions, Reinsborough notes that “corporations are largely appropriating the sort of solution-oriented end of the environmental movement,” for instance, the solutions of smaller ecological design vendors present at the festival. This appropriation puts activists even more on the defensive.

The jumbled mix of politics and commerce made this festival no exception. Reinsborough told of how he had forgotten his wallet on his way to the festival, so he had no option of buying anything. “It made me acutely aware,” he says, “of how little interaction there actually was aside from buying and selling.”

Chris Carlsson, who was one of the people to first popularize the Critical Mass bicycle ride in San Francisco ten years ago, was also at the festival, and he shared some of his own thoughts on the event: “There’s no critique that there might be something wrong with the buying and selling of the products of human labor or of human time itself. There’s no critique of wage labor or anything else… On the other hand,” he says, for people who are new to green consumerism, “I would argue that this [event] probably has a radicalizing impact, where people can see how many alternatives there really are, already present, technologically and socially, that represent themselves here through the strange veil of capitalist greenage.”

However, he counters, “I’m quite sure we won’t shop our way to a better world.”

“The reproduction of ‘fair’ business practices, as opposed to NON-business practices seems to me to speak more to the problem than the solution,” says Carlsson. “I like things where people are able to engage in direct connections and make alternatives in a way that escapes the logic of buying and selling. It’s not always easy to do because you’re always stuck paying the bills, as I am, too. But when people can break out of that logic, they get a taste of something different and it leads in a more radical direction, psychologically, much more quickly.”

Fhar Miess is part of The Alarm! Newspaper Collective. The Alarm! is a Santa Cruz based bi-weekly newspaper, a source for local, independent media analysis. It is distributed free of charge in Santa Cruz county. To learn more or to subscribe, visit or call (831) 429-NEWS.



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