Green Consumerism

by Jerlin Rupa on Friday 24 September 2010, 1:36 PM | Category: Marketing| View: 1805 views
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Green Consumerism


Green consumerism can be described as either a highly democratic strategy to save the planet. As a strategy to save the planet it confronts the mass of consumers in industrialised countries and in effect says: "its up to you". Consumer demand has got us into the current mess, now it has to get us out again. Consumers must inform themselves about major environmental problems and then, by being cross-informed through product labelling, they should only select environmentally gentle products -- and green life-styles to match their new consumption tastes.

The idea is that when awareness of environmental problems penetrates deeply enough into the community consciousness the purchasing power of the mass market will force all manufacturers to green both their products and their manufacturing processes -- on pain of being rejected in the market-place by green-leaning consumers. If all goes according to plan only those companies which adapt to the demand for greenness will survive. This approach to environmentalism is seen as being consistent with our existing mainstream culture. It allows the majority of people participation in the decision-making process by way of voting with their credit cards.

The other point of view on green consumerism sees the mass of consumers as being victimised and exploited by misleading advertising which appeals to highly moral, but ill-informed, instincts on environmental matters. It sees manufacturers, together with the high-priests of over-consumption, the advertising industry, adapting to environmental concerns as if they were merely a new fashion to squeeze the juice out of, before moving on.

The first point of view sees the environmental crisis as being the result of the quality of past mass consumption whereas the second view sees it as being caused by, not only the quality, but the volume of consumption as well. For the sceptic, green consumerism might even increase environmental damage by encouraging the consumption of new types of products under the misconception that they are environmentally benign. An even more jaded `environmental rationalist' might respond to the call for green consumerism with the retort that, `there's no such thing as a green lunch'.

The Roots of Green Consumerism

Green buyers, of course, have been around for a long time, but until recently they were only a discriminating few. The birth of the modern green consumer movement is usually dated at around the time the newly-released Brundtland Report was generating heightened awareness of the global ecological crisis. In 1987 a British company called The Body Shop won the UK "Company of the Year" Business Enterprise Awards. The Body Shop was then "riding high on a wave of green consumerism" as an outlet for "cruelty-free, minimally packaged, natural ingredient soaps". It was expanding at the rate of 20 new outlets a year and its extraordinary success helped to inspire several authors to quickly assemble popular guides to both green economics and green consuming. Amongst the most successful were the best-selling paperbacks The Green Consumers Guide  and Blueprint For A Green Planet.  (It was around this time that Margaret Thatcher declared herself green.) Green discrimination by consumers was thereafter quickly established as an essential ingredient of the business culture's plan to save the planet.

The Year of Shopping Greenly

As green consumerism took off in early 1989 the popular media fell over each other in the rush to inform the public about their new responsibility to consume with green discrimination. Numerous articles appeared featuring environmental/consumer experts with trolleys full of supermarket purchases offering advice on exactly what form this discrimination should take. Lists of supposedly good and bad products were presented. One entitled "The shopping list that saves the world." had Kate Short from the Total Environment Centre making the following recommendations;

1. Cleaning agents, with refill

2. Metal kitchen utensils: tongs, ice cream scoop

3. Glass containers for storage

4. Mild detergent

5. Waxed foodwrap -- instead of plastic

6. Metal garbage bin, bucket, dustpan

7. Straw broom -- not plastic

8. Natural fibre doormat

9. Pure washing powder, pure antiseptic

10. Tile cleaning; use steel wool with bicarb

11. Pump action carpet cleaners

12. Plain toilet paper, tissues -- not dyed

13. Roll-on deodorants -- instead of aerosol

14. Wooden coat-hangers -- better than plastic

15. Simply packaged stationary

16. Metal razor

17. Shave stick -- not aerosol shave cream

18. Toothpaste in tube -- instead of pump pack

Green Consumers? Or Conning Unassuming Greens?

There are four pitfalls for the consumer trying to buy green. The first pitfall was the "Bit-Less-Trap. This is best illustrated by the CFC-free aerosol, which is marketed as environmentally-friendly, but which may contain other gases which threaten health or continue to damage the ozone layer. It is a bit less harmful than its predecessor, but still not sound. Unleaded petrol is another example. It lessens the problem of lead pollution in the atmosphere but then aromatic hydrocarbons are added to the unleaded petrol to keep up the octane level and, if the car doesn't have a catalytic converter attached to the exhaust, benzene is emitted, which is a known carcinogen.

The second pitfall was identified as the `Green Image Game'. A statement directed at marketing executives was cited which advised "By making products sound as if they are good for the environment, manufacturers can attract extra sales from around a third of the population".

The third pitfall was `Niche-marketing'. This is evident when a manufacturer produces one line of products specifically directed towards environmentally-aware consumers but at the same time produces comparable products in the old environmentally-unfriendly mode for the mainstream market.

The fourth pitfall was the `Cradle-to-Grave Trap' which was identified as a concern for the history of the whole product: the resources that are refined to make it, the pollution caused in manufacturing, the energy consumption, both in manufacturing and operation, and the product's life-span and disposal problems. This pitfall is the impossibility for the consumer to find all this out before every purchase. Who is the consumer supposed to ask about it, the sales assistant?

The imposition on consumers to make sound judgements on the environmental correctness of the products they buy, sometimes in the absence of any relevant information at all, and often under an avalanche of obviously false and misleading claims, led Greenpeace to conclude;

Key impacts of green products:

1.            Consumers have been asking for green products, i.e., there has been a clear rise in demand for such products.

2.            Businesses have looked into the green process--generating corporate environmental profiles, monitoring and evaluating green performance, and improving corporate image as a result.

3.            Green products have also increased competition among businesses to generate more Environmentally friendly, also referred to as nature friendly, is a term used to refer goods and services considered to cause minimal harm on the environment.

4.            Eco-labeling networks that monitor and evaluate green products have been developed in many countries. These networks have done life cycle analyses to understand the impact of products.

5.            Governments have also taken several measures that have supported and facilitated such moves by the business.

6.            Green consumerism creates a balance between the expectations of consumer behaviour and business profit motives.

Certain points of relevance from the viewpoint of industry to be noted are:

·        Markets don't wait for slow movers. Business that innovate and respond quickly to consumer demands survive best.

·        Everyone has a part to play, at various levels of administration, manufacture and use.

·        All products have an environmental impact, however small. The idea is to reduce it to the minimum.



The peak of mass enthusiasm for green consumerism has clearly passed. The market now seems to be segmented into the majority who tend to resist green marketing and a minority who tend to respond to it. If this is the case then there is little prospect for green consumerism succeeding as a method for solving the environmental crisis. The plan originally called for the mass consumer market to demand a complete restructuring of manufacturing along environmentally sound lines. A minority of consumers can never be expected to achieve this.


`Let us stop junking the planet; we've got some serious shopping to do.'

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