Eco-friendly consumption? Critics don’t buy it

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

What’s the green approach to the holidays?

If you listen to the marketers, manufacturers and retailers, it’s all about buying environmentally sensitive products -- biodegradable cards, gift wrap made from wastepaper and glass objets d’art fashioned from old beer bottles.

Some critics are quick to assail the notion that you can go green by spending money, saying that this kind of eco-Christmas is more artificial than a plastic tree.

Green products: A Nov. 23 article in the Business section about eco-friendly products said Andrew Szasz was a professor at UC Santa Barbara. Szasz is a professor at UC Santa Cruz.

But others call the trend a way to ease consumers into a greener way of life.

“In a perfect world, the one we don’t live in right now, there’s something ironic about buying your way to green,” said Deborah Barrow, founder of TheDaily- Green, a Hearst-owned online environmental guide. “But we live in this world, and this world has people who are heavily invested in a consumerist society and yet they’re more and more interested in going green.”

And in a year with relatively modest expectations for holiday sales, that sounds a lot like opportunity.

In a recent poll, nearly nine in 10 Americans identified themselves as “conscious consumers,” according to the Conscious Consumer Report, produced by marketing agency BBMG.

About the same number said that if products were equal in price and quality, they were more likely to buy from companies that manufacture energy-efficient products, promote health and safety and commit to environmentally friendly practices, the pollsters found.

Those are good reasons for retailers to make sure their green is showing.

Home Depot on Wednesday offered tips for celebrating the holidays in green fashion, including improving a home before guests arrive, decorating it for the holidays and selecting the ideal gifts.

Oh, and just in case you need some gift ideas, Home Depot reminds consumers that it has an Eco Options line of environmentally friendly products.

Others also are getting in on the act. Target Corp. devotes a section of its website to “eco-friendly” merchandise, though it’s a year-round endeavor, the company says. That’s similar to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s green site, which highlights the world’s largest retailer’s own environmentally sensitive products.

Barneys New York’s new catalog, titled “Have a Green Holiday,” offers gift cards saying, “Green Is Groovy,” “Join the Green Revolution” and “Save the Planet.”

The upscale retailer also sells a variety of pricey products that incorporate organic materials or come with the promise to donate unspecified amounts to groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But if none of that appeals, Barneys also highlights an $850 leather tote bag tanned without chemicals and emblazoned with “I am the earth. I love myself and I respect myself,” in French.

All that is rubbing some people the wrong way.

“It’s cynical on the part of the manufacturers and the people who want to sell this stuff,” said Andrew Szasz, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of the new book “Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed From Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves.”

“In a world where people want to continue to aspire to middle-class consumption patterns, but they are also wanting to feel like they are responsible citizens who care about social and environment issues, how do they reconcile that? They go shopping for something that declares itself to be ecologically friendly.”

Instead, the best way to be ecologically friendly is to give -- and buy -- less, said Debra Amador, co-founder of the website Buy(Less)Crap.

The site, launched in April and targeted at the “cause-sumer,” features flashy takeoffs on Gap Inc.'s Red Campaign under the heading, “Shopping Is Not a Solution. Buy (Less). Give More.”

The group advocates giving directly to charities rather than buying products that purport to do so and asking retailers and manufacturers for specifics about how much they donate to the causes they say they support.

“We’re not anti-shopping,” Amador said. “Through this campaign, we’ve been connected to so many people, and they’re not tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating activists. They’re mainstream Americans who understand that we consume too much.”

For those who still want to consume, however, even serious environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and, have gotten in on the guides with their own versions of green buying.

The California Department of Conservation also sponsors a website, Green Gift Guide, that offers links to products made from the state’s own recycled glass and aluminum bottles, cans and containers. They’re sorted into a range of categories, including home, pets and toys.

Yahoo has a green gift guide too, with links to environmental groups’ suggestions and thoughts about Earth-friendlier ways to wrap presents and how to reduce catalog clutter.

But just in case Web surfers aren’t ready to take the plunge, links at the bottom of Yahoo’s page redirect them to the regular, less eco-conscious guides to the hottest toys, tech gadgets and holiday gifts.