Can Greener Equal Better?

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Joel Makower has a recent column asking why greener doesn’t or can’t equate to “better.” Here’s his list of what kinds of categories determine better products in consumers’ values.

• cheaper to buy

• cheaper to own

• enhanced features

• healthier

• higher performance

• improves my image

• innovative

• less wasteful

• more convenient

• more durable

• more stylish

• repairable

• reusable

• upgradeable

• uses less energy

All except the last items on the list refer to some utility for the user. Makower concedes that his argument takes a narrow view of people’s preferences.

I'll admit this is a very selfish view of the world. It assumes that most people, when making purchase decisions, don't think much beyond their own immediate needs, or those of their family. And while there are exceptions to that (and I'm sure that you, dear reader, are among those who always consider the greater good), the vast majority of consumers focus primarily on their immediate needs and interests. Which is why most green products remain niche products, and likely always will.

I fully agree with his main thesis, but not with his claim of the inevitability of the status quo. Yes, it is and will continue to be very difficult to change the calculus that people use to make choices in the market place, if you believe that choice is some rational outcome. But if you start with a different model of choice, based more on the influence of cultural norms, the possibility of change grows larger. Today these norms overwhelmingly favor internal utilities rather than external factors. If our beliefs ever include the consciousness that concern for the world and concern for our selves are intimately connected, the long list of “betters” would include many related to the connection of the potential purchase to external factors. When both psychological and sociological values line up as they do now, however, Makower’s pessimism is hard to dispel. But it is not inevitable.

Greener products do nothing or little to change consumers self-directed consciousness. Actors separate their self-directed actions from those primarily directed toward others and the environment. By buying what they think are greener (better) products, they may mistakenly come to believe that they are making the world better. This kind of assessment is never going to be grounded because the consumer cannot judge what impact his purchase is actually making in the world, only how he or she feels about what they did. And that will inevitably influenced or determined by what some "authority' says about it. I think this is the more likely reason that greener products will not equate to better products.

The photo today is a 2009 Greener Gadgets award winner, The Power Hog.

Power-Hog is a power consumption metering piggy bank designed to sensitize kids to energy cost associated with running electronics devices. Plug the tail into the outlet and the device into the snout; feed a coin to meter 30 minutes of use.

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