Environmental bad tidings make us nervous. But buying the latest organic, eco-friendly, all-natural, locally grown, bamboo, hybrid, post-consumer-recycled, solar-powered, BPA-free, non-toxic, energy-efficient, sustainable, renewable, biodegradable luxury product? That we can wrap our heads around. Consider this: Last March, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies commissioned a study on the willingness of Americans to pay more for environmentally friendly products, even as the economy around them began to teeter into recession. Half of the survey respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” pay 15% more for eco-friendly laundry detergent (51%) or for an automobile (50%). Forty percent said they would spend 15% more on “green” computer paper and 39% would do the same for sustainable wood furniture. Even Americans who described their financial situation as “poor” said they were ready to pay more for planet-friendly products.
Those green-stamped lotions, furniture, sodas, pastas and clothes have become a lucrative business, and evermore exclusive and expensive products are hitting the market. The poor folks might be paying extra for planet-safe dish soap, but the wealthy are blowing a whole lot more on their luxury hybrid SUVs.
There are now solar-powered tanning beds, solar-powered yachts and sustainable caviar. Exclusive label Hermés has a $960 reusable silk grocery bag and designer Deborah Lindquist sells recycled cashmere dog sweaters for $99. Green consumerism has become the ultimate guilt-reducer, a way to enjoy all the ease and comfort life has to offer without feeling that you’re actually doing very little to contribute. Got an 18,000-square-foot beach house? Put a few solar panels on the pool house and enjoy your organic martini.
In fairness to our friends of means, there is something to be said for moving in the right direction. And builders and architects especially will attest to the fact that it is those with money to spend who can afford to install solar panels and geothermal heat pumps and who drive the market for renewable energy innovation.
But while some of the rich and famous seem to be taking environmental action seriously (Leo DiCaprio, I’m looking at you), for many, going green is another way to steal a little more spotlight, make a few more media lists and feel good for doing nothing. Reducing consumption, eliminating waste, saving energy and driving smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles does not a sexy story make, but it’s the only path to healing the planet.
That said, it’s high time we took a closer look at just how far upscale this green movement has gone.