Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How Green is my Basket?

It is too bad that the American people are so oblivious to their own power. Beyond their political voices, which are usually under-represented in the polls every November, Americans are able to “vote with their dollars” to quote the now-trite phrase. And while that concept is thrown around a lot, few understand the power that it can direct towards changing our society, and even our government. The cases where it has been applied we can see positive results emerging, usually in sectors where the government has proven too sterile in effecting the changes that people – judging from their fiscal “voting” – desire. Traditionally, these areas are environmentally-friendly products and/or services and consumption choices that positively augment the position of people around the world.

One of the nice qualities of these movements is they are usually grassroots, which has generally been associated with a popular movement growing up and gaining strength. It shows mass popularity for something to grow from the small end of the spectrum. Smaller businesses are easier to be “green” or “organic” or whatever eco- or social-friendly moniker you desire to ascribe to them. Large businesses have a sort of economic momentum due to their size and corporate culture which imposes barriers to such changes. They are also not inherently socially conscious, focused upon profits and shareholders as opposed to workers or the environment. It is not to say that these companies are inherently evil, it is just their nature within a large capitalist market. Smaller businesses are able to adapt to changing consumer patterns rather quickly, and it is in these small stores and markets that such concepts as fair trade certification, organically grown crops, recycled packaging, shade grown foods, and other socially conscious developments emerge. (Plus, and it is important to note, that these stores have a clientele that is able to afford the higher prices that accompany the initial costs associated with not only developing a product in this manner, but also having it certified by a recognized international oversight organization. This is almost a crucial aspect to the success of such movements, and thus can be best executed in first world nations.)

This is a curious precipitation from strict, traditional capitalism: the people’s will to see and affect a change in the world around them that does not, initially or intuitively, grant them a benefit. And as these movements – based in small stores, farmers markets, co-ops, and other niche retailers – grows, it builds more and more momentum. It is a good reward for those who take the time to adopt such products into their stores, as well as the consumers who choose to consciously make these purchases due to the social and environmental implications they carry. The momentum can carry these new tenets of business practices all the way to the “big boys.” It is heartening to see when big companies adopt these products or practices, a successful apex to each grassroots beginning. And they have been, spurred on by the dollar votes of consumers. The examples are almost limitless:

There are numerous debates on how large companies and organizations can still maintain the ideals and spirit of the measures they have adopted, and that is a valid concern. But what is most striking is that these large businesses and organizations even thought along these lines. And all of that translates directly into the power of consumers, whether they are people buying lattes or students paying for an education, to shift the paradigms that rule businesses.

One would think that with this record of success in deploying these initiatives among businesses it would become a more standard procedure to attack problems from a fiscal perspective. However, this is sadly not the case. The overriding reason, I believe, is that implementation of these solutions from the ground-up takes too long to manifest itself; only the most careful of planning and execution can pull off these coups. But victory is possible. And there is no shortage of social ills that one could apply this methodology towards.

I see oil consumption as the next major battle to be waged and won through financial means. The government has regularly shown its incompetence towards achieving a viable solution to the problem of our fossil fuel “addiction” as our President put it. This is not a condemnation of either side of the aisle, but of the government as a whole. Tax rebates, ANWR drilling, protectionist mergers are all as equally useless as they are clouding to the debate. But the people are speaking. Toyota was one of the first to bring an assembly-line hybrid vehicle to the market, a car which provides substantially higher gas mileage than normal cars (55mpg per Toyota’s testing versus 27.5 for the American fleet average). Instantly the demand flew through the roof. There were reports that there existed a 7-month wait period merely to purchase one of these technological wonders. Detroit must have been scratching their heads, wondering why no one would patiently wait seven months for a new Ford or Chevy. And it grew. Honda quickly caught up with their own hybrids, Toyota expanded their line up. Ford got on board by leasing Honda’s technology. Most car manufacturers are set to introduce hybrid vehicles within the next year if they haven’t already. And since transportation still consumes the majority of America’s oil, this is a good place to start. Other solutions include bio-diesel, ethanol (General Motor’s E85 program is growing) and liquid natural gas (LNG) vehicles. This is a much better solution than what Washington is providing, and more effective than the lamely-introduced “boycotts” of oil companies that periodically surface yet never work. The gears are in motion.

Americans need to wake up to the fact that using their buying power wisely and effectively can mean bringing about the changes that we desire to see in our nation. As much as buying power can be used for positive reinforcement (consumers buying from a certain company because they provide the desired products/services), it can also be negative punitive measures when companies do things that the citizens/consumers of this country dislike. Boycotts, when organized effectively, can highlight public awareness, visibly display disapproval of a certain organizations’ actions, and serve to, through financial burdens, and force a change for the better. I wrote of this back in April within the environmental movement , but it can apply to whichever cause you desire to augment with your efforts. That, and a little personal sacrifice which is a whole other issue. In capitalism, the ultimate weapon, ruler, and metric of a people is the dollar. Learning to wield those dollars in wise ways could go far to cut through current problems we face and unveil new and innovative solutions from which all global citizens’ benefit.

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