October 30, 2007

Sustainability vs. Luxury: Are They Really At Odds?

Whatever you personal feelings about Al Gore, he must be doing something right (you don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, after all, for failing miserably). Thanks in no small part to Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, the American public’s awareness of environmental concerns has grown considerably in recent years. This increased awareness brings with it a fascinating process of learning, questioning, justifying, arguing and, sometimes, changing. Since our industrial revolution, America has been a society of consumers, embracing values of luxury and carefree (careless?) spending. With the advent of the climate crisis, this consumerism is being challenged. But is luxury truly anathema to sustainability? Must we really choose between consumption and abstinence?

Ask the average citizen what it takes to be sustainable, or green, and you’ll likely hear something along the lines of, “Give up the fun stuff.” This model is perpetuated by the environmental movement itself, whose primary motto is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” implying we must reduce our indulgences before anything can be done to save us. Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, of the Living Small blog recently summed up this pervasive attitude rather bluntly in a recent entry for The Ethicurian: “I hate to be the one to point it out, but luxury and sustainability are contradictory values.” Clearly, this belief runs deep, regardless of which side of the fence you shop on.

Is it true, though?

Is it possible to live in extravagance without damaging the environment? Is it possible to thoughtlessly consume without essentially shitting your waste all over the place? Right now, the answer is no. Thanks to an unchecked economic system that has never once factored environmental resources into the cost of doing business, we now have a world of goods made from toxins, that produce toxins, and end up as toxins in landfill.

Just imagine if companies— the building blocks of our current economy—assigned a real dollar value to the cost of natural resources. I’m not even talking about the expense of strip mining, for example, with all its OSHA regulations and heavy machinery. I’m talking about costs like the lost productivity of worker-drones who don’t have access to sunlight and fresh air, or the long-term cost of depleting oil reserves without a sufficient energy source to replace them. These are real costs to businesses of all sizes, but when was the last time you took a hard look at the “waste disposal” line item on your P&L?

The truth is that the products we make and sell and buy are damaging us even as they make our lives easier in the short term. Pesticides that help us produce more food faster actually leach into water sources, for example, then leach into the fish swimming in those water sources, then leach into those of us who eat that fish. Or, on a simpler level, take your latest purchase at OfficeMax: how much of what you just paid for is actually for plastic packaging that you sent to a landfill as soon as it passed through your business’ doors?

It’s not doomsday yet, though.

As I write this, R&D departments throughout the world are racing to find new, better alternatives. At one time, recycled paper was a crappy alternative to virgin pulp paper but thanks to technological development, we now have gorgeous, affordable recycled paper options at our disposal. The Prius is another, if imperfect, example. A process once hidden from the public’s gaze is now snowballing into the limelight. Companies are recognizing that the up-front R&D costs generally pale in comparison to the ROI to be seen down the road. And we small businesses get to piggyback on their innovation.

What they’re working on is really incredible, and incredibly sexy. Cars that run on air (they exist!); treatment plants that clean wastewater using the gas from their own processes (okay, that last one's not so sexy, but it's really cool). These advances have already been made, and now it’s a matter of applying our technological capabilities to their mass production so they become the norm and not the exception. Quickly. And that happens through publicity (cue Al Gore) and the build-up of demand.

It’s a beautiful cycle, isn’t it? And it’s why I believe that luxury and sustainability are not contradictory values in and of themselves. With our current production framework, no, of course they can’t coexist. But our current framework is changing. If regenerative products become the norm—products that add to the health of our environment rather than detract from it—it could conceivably mean that carefree consumption can actually be an environmentally friendly action.

One has to happen first for the other to be true, of course. But the change is happening. So as we continue to demand that the end-user change their habits, we need to also demand—even more strenuously—that the producers change theirs.

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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4 Comment(s)

Anonymous gwen kaiser said...

i believe that luxury can be sustainable.

on the weather channel recently, that show, climate earth i think, they calculated the monetary value of the world's natural resources. if i remember correctly, the total was more than 3x the world's gdp.

cheers! gwen

8:59 PM  
Blogger Crafty Green Poet said...

I think there are limits - certainly there can be sustainable luxury products, but runaway consumerism is a problem in itself and unsustainable.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

That's my point, though; runaway consumerism is only a problem right now, as the products we consume take more from the planet than they restore.

The ideal would be a manufacturing dynamic that can produce endless "stuff" that:

1) Does not deplete our natural resources faster than it restores them...

2) Offers unending end-use (that is, all the "stuff" we make can be turned into more "stuff")...

This is surely an idealistic challenge, but that is the direction a lot of businesses are moving towards right now.

Coupled with pay-to-pollute legislation, the r&d will happen even faster.

Unlikely? Maybe. But not impossible.

As we function right now, though, rampant consumerism is indeed a problem. But not by definition.

—JJ

1:30 PM  
Blogger adrian2514 said...

Hey thanks for the great blog, I love this stuff. I don’t usually do much for Earth Day but with everyone going green these days, I thought I’d try to do my part.

I am trying to find easy, simple things I can do to help stop global warming (I don’t plan on buying a hybrid). Has anyone seen that www.EarthLab.com is promoting their Earth Day (month) challenge, with the goal to get 1 million people to take their carbon footprint test in April? I took the test, it was easy and only took me about 2 minutes and I am planning on lowering my score with some of their tips.

I am looking for more easy fun stuff to do. If you know of any other sites worth my time let me know.

12:32 PM  

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