This isn’t a riddle. But the question is how does corporate America celebrate Earth Day? The answer, it seems, is take out an advertisement in The New York Times.
On April 22, 2011, Coca-Cola announced in the paper its new water battle made with 30% plant-based plastic. A few pages later in the front section, TD Bank proclaimed that, “Green is in Our Nature.” Macy joined in the celebration, offering half-off discounts to customers who recycled their cosmetic containers.
Despite the expensive ads, all isn’t well with green commerce. Just below the fold on the front-page, the Times reported on Earth Day: “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure.” The headline pretty much gave the story away. The article argued that the “love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars” was ending, “faded like a bad infatuation.”
As one analyst quoted in the article said, “if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it.” But this is a rather narrow way to see buying–green buying or any other kind of buying. American consumers, especially the middle-classes, who were initially the largest block of green purchasers, don’t really buy all that much based on price alone. They carefully spend their money to establish an image and identity. They spend the most to distinguish themselves from others, not to keep up with the Joneses, but to separate themselves from the Joneses. This kind of distinction through buying requires a little scarcity. If everyone can get it, whatever it is, it isn’t worth as much. If we think about buying this way, there is probably another way to account for the drop in spending.
As early as 2008, some analysts started to notice what they called, “green fatigue.” By this time, lots of people and organizations started to act green. Cities were going green. Universities were going green. Soft drink companies, banks, and cosmetic makers were also green. Even Fritos, then Walmart, went green.
In this climate, consumers couldn’t distinguish themselves from others–the less informed or less caring–by buying green anymore. Caring about the planet has lost some its scarcity.
Perhaps the overabundance of green things and ideas explains even more than a few pennies here and there why some New Recession-era consumers are taking their business elsewhere. They are themselves tired of environment and they don’t see its utility anymore as an image-maker. That of course doesn’t bode well for the planet and the long-term lessening of carbon footprints.
Bryant Simon is the author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America From Starbucks, and a professor of History at Temple University.