Life

Green Sell: Do You Buy It?

My EPIC journey into the new eco-marketing.

By Shannon Rupp 14 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read her previous columns here.

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Buzz factor: 360 'eco luxury' vodka.

"If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution" -- early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman

The evolution of green from a movement of zealots as fierce as anything politics and religion have spawned into a mainstream marketing phenomenon has been fascinating, but I've yet to decide if it is A Good Thing. Unfortunately, the EPIC trade show in Vancouver last month left me no more certain.

The expo's eco angle led to some curious bed- er, booth-fellows. The Toyota hybrids were on display along with the Smell This! massage oil and samples of Salt Spring Coffee, which styles itself Canada's first carbon neutral java pusher.

Delivered with a convincing sales pitch, it all looked swell to me, but it got my companion Antler Boy (a man who spins nostalgic tales of protests he has known) ranting about the gullibility of consumers. (As last year's Ipsos poll tells us, women are more likely to fall for green marketing than men, and British Columbians are most apt to be skeptical.)

I'd brought him along to test the array of earth-friendly boozes including 360, "the world's first eco luxury vodka" from Missouri, and the French Rabbit wine in green earth-conscious Tetra Paks. All passed muster, but Pacific Western's award-winning Natureland Organic Amber Ale got an enthusiastic thumbs up for taste. It also met with his philosophical demand that his tipple hail from regional microbreweries -- in this case, Prince George's Pacific Western Brewing Company.

Sadly, there wasn't enough alcohol on offer to settle him down, and Antler Boy's inner eco-warrior was soon muttering about the lack of education, information, and genuine ideas in the booths. He wanted more exhibitors like the Aquarium's Ocean Wise conservation program, which advises restaurants on which fruits de mer are sustainable and ocean-friendly.

Oh, let's face it, what he really wanted was one of the joyful protests of his youth, perhaps demanding that Translink managers be fired (or guillotined at Granville and Georgia?) and replaced with people who can run a viable transit system that could replace cars.

"Shopping is just a distraction from the real issues," he said, illustrating the attitude that got Vancouver labeled the No-Fun City.

Weeding out greenwashers

But I believe shopping well is the best defence, so I have a three-part test for eliminating greenwashers based on my observation that truly green goods also benefit your wallet and your health. If it doesn't do all three things, give it a pass.

One exhibitor passing the test is the Cooperative Auto Network (CAN), the Vancouver-based car co-op with 4,100 members and 218 cars. The environmental and money saving benefits are a given -- it costs about $500 a month to own a car, and the co-op cuts that figure by more than half for most people. Then there are the hidden health benefits.

CAN founder Tracey Axelsson notes that new members say their biggest surprise isn't how much they save or how little they really need a car -- it's the weight they've lost due to walking more.

"Maybe I should promote car sharing as fitness program?" Axelsson jokes.

Geo-thermal heating also passes my test, and a number of exhibitors were selling this, along with wind turbines and solar panels. While the price upfront is more than a conventional home heating system, it pays for itself within a few years and reduces bills permanently.

I agree with Antler Boy that wasting money is an environmental sin. While questions like, "Do you really need more cute shoes, even ones with recycled tire treads for soles?" are annoying, his philosophy is sound. Although I think his idea for surtax on products deemed "useless crap" (presumably by him) is a little OTT.

Of course, buying more stuff and nonsense requires us to work longer hours, which leads to a demand for more "convenience" products. Just consider processed foods with their excess packaging and corn fructose additives -- they are lousy for the environment, your bank account, and your waistline.

Cute organics

Surveying booth after booth of earth-friendly fashion in the form of T-shirts, exercise gear, and all sorts of cute stuff made of organic-this and recycled-that, it's clear citizens are seen as little more than hamsters on the wheel of a consumer economy. Actually pet rodents are probably better off -- at least they have time for exercise.

The real cost comes with storing, maintaining, and insuring our purchases. Big money, even if it's a hybrid car you're housing. Homebuyers aghast at recent real estate prices might want to factor in the cost of owning more stuff. It means a bigger house, a pricey reno, renting storage for the overflow, or even just buying more organization gizmos to cope with an out-of-control shoe collection.

Perhaps truly sustainable fashion -- a contradiction in terms, I know -- requires a return to old-fashioned cobblers and tailors who produce good quality, long-lasting garments that defy trends?

It was all too complicated to contemplate. Under Antler Boy's disapproving gaze, I even passed on the adorable organic-fabric baby togs from Lola & Lucas, a Vancouver company that promises no sweatshop labour went into those onesies.

But Ipsos, a sponsor of EPIC, assures me I'm in the minority. One of their polls shows that six in 10 shoppers prefer retailers who offer eco-friendly clothes.

Raking in the chips

Our next stop was the Hardbite booth, which judging by the hordes of people surrounding the potato chip seller, was delivering an exceptionally tasty heart-attack-in-a-bag. The Maple Ridge-based company began making its old-fashioned kettle-cooked chips four years ago, and the new owners have taken them international. They boast that due to low cooking heats they eliminate trans fats. The potatoes are grown in the region, which they point out makes them eligible for many a 100-mile diet. Even the packaging is recycled and local.

I salute any business that does all this, but now for a reality check: it's potato chips, people. Smack with salt! Deep-frying is second only to the white death for the health damage it does and, in my experience, is just as addictive as chocolate. And I have lots of experience.

But Antler Boy insists that potato chips are fine and launched into his views on how the real villain in the pantry is the trans-fat-loaded crackers. I would have argued that his habit of eating chips for dinner wasn't sustainable either, but I feared the inevitable segue into his "hazards of rice cakes" lecture.

Even exhibitors disagreed about what is truly green and good. A purveyor of one roofing product volunteered that his competitor was peddling an eco-hostile version, reminding us there is no honour among salespeople.

All I could think was: Where is green-building guru Mike Holmes when you need him? Alas, the man with the big tool belt had already left the main stage and my fantasies of him interrogating this guy (and then coming home with me to hang my shelves) went unfulfilled.

Weeks later, Antler Boy and I are still debating whether selling green is more than another angle for earning it. He doubts my three-part test, arguing that it fails with coffee, for example, because -- fair trade, shade-grown be damned -- caffeine is bad for my health. (Not so: I couldn't make deadlines without coffee, which makes it crucial to my wellbeing.)

Green with envy?

And at the back of my mind is the nagging feeling that so-called green products are little more than the 21st century's answer to medieval indulgences. Then, wealthy members of the flock would sin wildly and the church would sell them indulgences -- a clean slate that would enable them to preserve their self-righteous self-image. Today, worshippers at the altar of Gaia have only to pay top dollar for organic cotton clothes and bamboo flooring to avoid criticism for indulging in the real sin: excessive consumption.

But the marketing schtick I've dubbed "Ayn Rand goes green" may soon be on the wane. Take the conflict in Montana's Paradise Valley, where a developer tried to exchange green building design for the right to erect 4,000 square foot vacation McMansions on habitat defended by conservationists. When locals objected, the wealthy developer accused them of "class envy," a term not heard in the U.S. since Emma Goldman was holding court in Greenwich Village.

Gasps of outrage followed, along with residents pointing out that money doesn't buy the right to squander public resources. (Since when?)

So perhaps the jury is still out for most of us on this green marketing stuff? Meanwhile, I'm sticking to my three-part test for determining what (and whether) to buy, with just one leetle exception. With apologies to Red Emma, if I can't have cute shoes, I don't want your revolution.

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