As part of the Plastic Free July promotion a group in Gisborne have launched a make Gisborne plastic-bag free campaign, and have got the backing of a few retailers in the city.  While this is highly laudable, I would suggest that it should be taken a step further and we should be concerning ourselves not just with what we carry our shopping home in, but also with what we are putting in our re-usable, biodegradable bags.

Firstly I must stress that I fully recognise that using sustainable materials, reducing consumption and buying “ecologically friendly” products is very important, and I would never denounce such a thing. But, I would add that such measures are of a limited use as solutions to the pollution of our world, and the catastrophe that most of the world’s climate scientists suggest we are facing. At best, such tactics can only delay, not prevent, capitalism’s devastation of the planet.

The fundamental issue is, can making ethical choices in our consumer habits actually influence how capitalism works?

The first problem faced is the issue of how much information about products for sale is hidden. Without diligent research, or information provided by pressure groups, customers have no way of knowing the environmental impact of the products they buy (for example, who knows the environmental cost of a supermarket’s recyclable bags?)

Then there is the misinformation provided by the companies themselves in their adverts and PR campaigns that can easily swamp our own best intentions, and the efforts of groups attempting to inform the public of the facts of the environmental costs of certain products.

All products have an environmental impact, no matter how green they are labelled, and corporations see ethical consumerism as a way of increasing consumption, not reducing it. It is a chance to redirect an interest in consuming less into a willingness to buy green products, meanwhile expanding their market share to include consumers that want green products. Of course they still produce and sell the more environmentally-damaging alternatives if there is money still to be made from them.

We are told that we can use the market to express our desire for greener goods, but the most obvious problem here is that some people have louder voices than others. Those with the loudest voice (i.e. the most money) will hardly be interested in radically changing an economic system that placed them in that position.

The reverse of this is that those with the least money will often be buying more ecologically destructive products simply to make ends meet rather than through any real desire to do so.

Ultimately, green consumerism has the effect of reducing our power to influence society solely down to our purchasing power. It does not deal with issues such as unlimited economic growth on a finite planet, or the power of the transnational corporations who manufacture and sell us our goods. Instead it sees the blame being placed on the individual, and presents the solution as “shopping better”.

Meanwhile the corporations, which will pollute if they see a profit in it, continue to take our money off us and cause the degradation of our environment.

Again, it must be stressed that we as individuals should change our lifestyles as much as possible if we are to limit our impact on the environment, and the campaign for a plastic-bag free Gisborne is welcomed in that it is a collective action, and a step away from the individualist approach of green consumerism — and it is a move in the right direction. However, the challenge is not to stop at that. In the face of the problems we are facing it will require an even more conscious, wide-ranging and radical movement to meet the challenges being posed by a system that puts its own interests before all else.

Only by organising to achieve a society where all of us as consumers and producers have full control over what is produced, and how it is produced and distributed, will we be able to address the issues facing us all.

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