Consume Less – and Consume Better
Dr. Kevin Danaher is a co-founder of Global Exchange, Fair Trade USA, and the Green Festivals, all of which have created many good jobs, transferred wealth from rich to poor, and raised environmental awareness.
There’s no denying it: We Americans are the hogs of the planet. We represent less than five percent of the world’s people but consume roughly 25 percent of the world’s resources. So we definitely need to cut back severely on our consumption. And one way to do that is to consume more consciously.
It’s easy for intellectuals to bemoan the collapse of all biological systems and tell everyone to stop buying stuff. But everyone needs a certain amount of stuff to survive. When you buy toilet paper (and unless you’re using corncobs or last week’s newspaper, we all buy toilet paper) do you read the package to see how much recycled content is in it? When you buy coffee, do you ask if the beans were produced under fair- trade-certified conditions?
Even the most radical anti-capitalist activist (and I consider myself one) has to buy some things. So the question is: Should you buy corporate crap manufactured in sweatshops and made with toxic ingredients? Or should you be able to buy products that do not exploit people and nature?
Embedded within those questions for the buyer are some deeper questions for the producer. Socially responsible enterprise poses two key questions for any company: Were people or nature exploited during production? And what happened with the profits? Do they go back into the process of educating people about the need for sustainability, or do they go into a few people’s pockets? If we can answer these two questions correctly, we can redefine enterprise.
There is a huge difference between enterprise (producing goods and services that people need) and corporate domination. Transnational corporations are one of the most problematic institutions on the planet because (1) they are not organized democratically, (2) they have no loyalty to any specific place, and (3) they tend to make their money by destroying natural resources. A thousand-year-old redwood tree is not a gift of the creator that should be preserved for future generations to enjoy; it is $250,000 on the lumber market. So under normal capitalist logic the tree is killed and turned into money.
This just shows that it’s easy to critique large corporations. The more challenging task is to build up alternative economic institutions that create good jobs by incorporating social justice and environmental restoration into their triple-bottom-line model. If Derrick and I were to go into a low-income part of the world, and he has the best critique of capitalism ever uttered, and I am offering green jobs at decent pay, who will get more allies? People need jobs and income, not radical rhetoric from us privileged intellectuals (and I also consider myself one of those).
The combination of environmental destruction and Internet technology is creating an advantage for green and fair trade products. As the natural resource base gets destroyed, it raises the value of saving resources and developing renewable substitutes. And the technology is coming whereby you will be able to take your handheld device, shoot the bar code of a product, and view endless information about the social and environmental impacts of how that product was produced.
This gives a market advantage to green products, fair trade products, and salvage products (“upcycling” materials from the waste stream into useful items). Organizations producing these products want to tell the backstory of how these products were made. That is something Walmart, Target, and Home Depot are not likely to do, because their backstory is about sweatshops and pollution.
We know that “you can’t buy your way to salvation.” I wish the cynics would find a new mantra. Sure, you can find critical things to say about any green company, but there are many smart, committed, radical people using the enterprise model to redefine the economy from the grassroots up. We are doing nothing less than taking down the master’s house with the master’s own tools.
After ten years of producing Green Festivals in eight cities, Global Exchange and Green America have reached more than one million people with a different retail experience, one that funds environmental education and fun, while allowing people to kick the tires of a different kind of economy. Now the challenge is to take that hybrid model of enterprise and education into a permanent venue.
What if every city had a GreenMart eco-mall that brought together the very cleanest green enterprises – the ones providing the best fair trade, salvage, and green products – and combined that with a community-organizing space that helped bring together social justice and environmental groups? Think: permanent Green Festival. The GreenMart would allow small, local companies to team up and compete with large corporations by sharing infrastructure and customers. Regular educational and cultural events would draw diverse audiences and inform people about the need for accelerating our transition to sustainability.
Let’s not have our righteous animosity toward capitalism blind us to the potential transformative power of enterprise. Instead, let’s create a revolutionary retail-service model that helps to grow the locally owned green economy, while generating enough profit to fund community development projects. (Wouldn’t it be nice, after all, to have a funding source for our political organizations that didn’t rely on begging from foundations and government agencies?) We will never get the ideal economy we want by pressuring elites to create it for us. It must come from ecological entrepreneurs who are devising ways to converge responsible enterprise with the social justice and environmental movements. In the end, that could be the ultimate example of biomimicry, a way to copy nature’s core principle: unity-of-diversity.