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Green Consumerism? I Don't Buy It

13/08/2013 11:32 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 11:32 BST

Marketing is a clever thing. A product can be advertised as 'natural' even if it is composed of entirely synthetic or chemical ingredients. This is because there is no legal definition of the word natural, and even chemical ingredients may have come from plant sources originally. Who is to say what is natural or not?

It's a similar scenario with most products that are sold as 'green' or 'sustainable'. Virtually everything we buy new leaves a hole in the ground somewhere, because raw materials are required to make new products. Energy is required too, and that has likely been generated by coal, gas or nuclear power.

That doesn't sound very green now, does it?

But we know that buying stuff is destroying the world, fuelling climate change, and damaging our children's futures, and we continue to do it. It's a strange and unhealthy love affair between human beings, items that we don't need, and money that we don't really have. How many of us are living off purposely incurred debt? It must be to our credit, right?

Wrong.

So we decide that we can choose to vote with our wallets, to put pressure on the major companies to source products environmentally. We can say no to factory farmed meat and no to palm oil. Yes to fair trade and yes to organic. Through ethical consumerism, we can reverse the effects of climate change, and continue to shop and drive and party as before.

Wrong again.

At least, the principles are right. Organic farming does make a difference to the planet, when compared with conventional farming methods. It impacts soil health, bee health, farmer health, plant health. Unlike the terms 'green' and 'natural', 'organic' has a certified meaning; it means no pesticides, no unnecessary antibiotics in animal feeds. It means that to some extent, you can control what your buying choices fund.

But as journalist Heather Rogers discovered when researching her book Green Gone Wrong, it also means that Big Organic gets a fat slice of the pie, and BO is not so easy to hold accountable to organic standards. Rogers travelled the world visiting organic farming communities and found that inspection standards were often overlooked thanks to bribes, that corruption was common, that communities were torn apart by western organic investors who - ironically, unbelievably - were chopping down trees in order to create organic farms for the mega BO industry.

Who are these companies? Big Organic is everywhere you look. It is what you are funding almost every time you buy organic produce from supermarkets where the ingredients are grown abroad.

The only solution is to cut out the middle man and buy organic foods from local suppliers who we know are inspected for maintaining standards. For instance, Shillingford Organics near where I live supplies locally delivered vegetable boxes of seasonal, organic produce, and has ecologically passionate farmers who grow many of their plants according to permaculture principles such as crop rotation.

But here's the rub. These small growers simply cannot compete for long with Big Organic, whose suppliers are endless, whose marketing is relentless, and whose prices are usually cheaper due to tax breaks and low waged farmers abroad.

And this scenario doesn't just apply to your food. There is a war going on between what is truly sustainable and what is destroying the planet and it extends far beyond what we put in our bellies. It involves architecture, automobiles, the energy industry, economics, politics; the entire foundation of our society. In Germany, green architecture such as the Passivhaus model (literally: 'passive house') is a carbon-zero success, while Britain continues to argue about the problems with wind turbines. Three decades ago, our biggest automobile manufacturers created hybrid electric cars that were pulled from the market despite public demand for them because they were so efficient that they were making the car companies less money.

It makes the idea of 'voting with your wallet' sound a little far-fetched, doesn't it?

Then there is carbon offsetting, the idea that an individual can neutralise travel emissions by buying into schemes that plant trees to soak up all the carbon produced by your flight. In reality, while these trees they do capture carbon and store it during their lifetimes, when they die it is simply released back into the atmosphere.

Next we have biofuels. Green fuel? Low carbon? Or a diversion of valuable growing spaces and food sources into fuelling our addiction to driving? Biofuels are made from crops like wheat, and mass demand for it has led to skyrocketing prices of a vital food source in countries where the biofuel is produced, causing local people to go hungry.

This list wouldn't be complete without a stab at population, yet as Rogers points out in her book, the issue is not about the fact that we consume, but to do with how we consume, since the average American individual consumes vastly more resources than, say, the average Indian family. Westerners throw away enough food to feed the world's 1 billion hungry people, and yet we point the finger at family size overseas when we see people starving. Is there really a lack of food in the world, or is it that our economic system benefits some and not others? Unpleasant food for thought. Much easier to buy into the idea that reducing the world's population will solve all our problems.

As Rogers says, 'It would be a major relief if we could buy our way out of global warming.' We can offset our carbon miles, but we can't offset our ecological impact. Until we start consuming less and changing the way we live, no new 'green' venture will save the planet from the impacts of climate change. To the next clever theory that markets itself as the solution to environmental chaos we need to stop and say: I don't buy it. Only then will 'green' come to mean something beyond the old meaning - of being naive.