Desperate Times Stymie Green Measures


Will fashionable green totes go out of style as the economy crumbles? (Jonathan Armenti/The Observer)

Published: January 29, 2009

Our society is an overwhelmingly materialistic one where worth is weighed in Louis Vuitton handbags and Hummers. This summer, however, something unusual occurred. We all started to “go green.” Suddenly Gucci purses were being tossed aside so women could don Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote, and a resurgence in bike culture shamed drivers of gas guzzlers. People began to grow urban gardens and tried to “reduce, reuse and recycle” as high gas prices forced millions to tighten their belts. If there was doubt that the green movement couldn’t sustain our nation’s faltering economy, this uncertainty only grew as more and more companies claimed bankruptcy or pushed massive layoffs. With a recent drop in gas prices and a dramatic increase in financial panic, the green movement has already lost some of its urgency. The election of Barack Obama could soon end America’s economic downturn, but without high oil costs to push people to sustainable alternatives, will the green movement bite the dust in the meantime?

I believe it will become apparent that the green movement was nothing more than a passing trend. Many will trade in their TOMS sneakers (whose manufacturer donates a pair of shoes to a child in Ethiopia for every pair purchased) for Steve Madden’s newest line, while others will ditch their urban gardens for the supermarket once the price of produce falls. True environmentalists and a few converts will continue lugging their canvas totes to the store in place of plastic bags, but the rest of society will begin forgetting them more and more, until they wind up in the garbage and at yard sales like forgotten toys and outdated dresses. As fuel costs skyrocketed, society figured out a way to manage outside of the “bigger is better” ideology. Habits are hard to break, however, and it will feel natural for Americans to slip back into their old wasteful ways when they’re presented with the option.

Our economy remains at an all-time low, but lower gas prices have temporarily returned, leaving many to wonder whether companies that have been developing alternate sources of sustainable energy will continue their projects. While it may have been financially beneficial to seek water, wind and solar energy during the summer, when gas prices drop, it may just be cheaper to stop experiments with sustainable energy and revert to proven methods. Only those companies who were founded on environmentally friendly practices or found green business models dramatically upped their incomes will retain them. Honda was once such case, distinguishing its brand through two environmentally-friendly vehicles—the Civic GX and the FCX—and independently working to develop alternative fuel. This new corporate identity has increased Honda’s visibility in the marketplace and helped them gain respect from environmentalists.

The problem with treating the green movement like a fad is that, unlike metallic nail polish and skinny jeans, its passing will directly impact our health and environment. To convince the non-committal masses that are swayed to each new fad, being green must be portrayed in the media as persistently stylish. Being green must become a cultural norm. Those who feel passionately about the environment must prompt these changes because the media is driven by advertising and will inevitably be threatened by a message downplaying consumerism. Environmentalists and those who believe in the green cause must stay committed, founding companies that are both green and attractive to the general public. They also must serve as an example to the general public: lugging their tote bags to the store, biking to work and showing that living consciously isn’t as painful as it may seem.

If we’re freaked out enough by global warming and want to cut toxic emissions that wreak havoc on nature, strict measures must be taken at the highest levels. Now that Obama has assumed the presidency, he must live up to his promises of environmental progress and provide government incentives for companies to utilize clean energy and consider the environment. Government agencies like the EPA must raise their standards and punish companies that care more about profit than protecting the environment. Only by forcing large corporations to adhere to rigid standards of practice will we be able to maintain the green philosophy in the business world. Otherwise, because “going green” will no longer be a profitable publicity gimmick, companies will ditch their hybrid vehicles, stock their kitchens with paper products and dump gallons of toxins into the air and water, just as if the surge in gas prices had never occurred.

Once maintaining an organic vegetable garden in your private home becomes as common as shelling out hundreds of dollars on new shoes each year, we’ll know that our society has successfully integrated the green philosophy into its identity. Until then, those hoping for a greener America must pledge themselves to the cause and refuse to be discouraged when SUVs and disposable Styrofoam cups continue to proliferate. After all, it will take a little time and persuasion to convince people that SmartCars are the new Mustang.