From eco-friendly pens to sustainably sourced sneakers, markets today are flooded with so-called “environmentally-friendly” products. Their target audience? Young adult consumers entering a world plagued simultaneously by ravenous materialism and the severe effects of (almost) irreversible climate change.
The marketing mantra to “buy green” invites consumers to spend a little more to feel a little less guilty about their personal contribution to the degradation of the environment.
But if we aren’t changing our lifestyles, and aren’t actually reducing our overall consumption, how much good are we actually doing? Buying green enables buyers to reduce guilt while consuming at their usual pace.
As a young consumer struggling with this question of whether to buy green or simply buy less, I decided to dig into the research.
The ‘green consumption effect‘
The argument for buying green is that purchasing or using an eco-friendly product creates a “warm glow” in consumers, generating a feeling of satisfaction likened to the rush one feels from helping others. A study from Concordia University even found that consuming a sustainable product can lead to a heightened sense of enjoyment.
So, should you take this evidence as the go-ahead to buy that fifth pair of yoga pants? Maybe not.
Green materialism is still materialism
Another study’s findings were at odds with Concordia’s findings of the benefits of green products. A survey of nearly 1,000 young American adults found that buying less correlates with increased personal well-being and decreased psychological distress.
So rather than acquiring more—albeit “green”—material possessions, maybe we should aim to reduce our overall consumption.
The cost of buying green
While buying less is inherently better for the pocketbook, buying green might not be. Earth-friendly items are often pricier than their less sustainable counterparts. In fact, for most consumers, price is the largest barrier to buying green products.
It’s important to consider, however, the reasons behind this price differential. Demand for green products still lags behind traditional products, which drives up prices. Growing and manufacturing sustainable materials also costs more, especially if ethical practices and fair labor standards are used. On top of all of that, third-party certifications, like fair trade and organic, aren’t cheap.
As consumers, we often look at a price tag and view that number as the total cost of our purchase. We forget about the externalities, or damages, that we don’t pay for, at least not with our bank accounts. We do pay for these damages in hidden ways, warns Patrick Holden, executive director for Sustainable Food Trust, UK. When you factor in the environmental degradation and negative public health effects that result from our current, highly unsustainable production practices, you begin to realize that the costs of our products go far beyond the price tag. And we—young consumers and future generations—will pay the price.
So should you buy green or buy less?
There is no clear answer. The problem may lie in the question. We can’t choose between buying green and buying less. We must do both.
Next time you want to buy that new pair of running shoes, ask yourself if the ones from last year could manage for a bit longer. Buying less will leave more money in your pocket.
But don’t feel too guilty about buying yourself or your loved ones a nice gift outside of the everyday necessities. You deserve a new pair of yoga pants sometimes. Simply try to find brands that limit environmental and social harm associated with production. For some guidance on how to do this, the World Wide Fund for Nature and other organizations offer some helpful tips. While they may cost more upfront, many eco-friendly products actually save you money in the long-run. For example, clothing made from sustainably sourced fabric often lasts longer, saving you money that you may have spent on frequent replacements.
If more people took on this new dualistic mentality, we can slowly shift our mindsets to reduce our ingrained materialistic habits. Not only is buying green and buying less cost-effective, but it will also help preserve our planet. And you’ll probably be a whole lot happier as you chase after the warm glow of making our planet better.