Corporate environmentalism: how useful is it, anyway?

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Author Michael Pollan wrote an article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about why, given the immensity of the problem we face in global warming and the improbability that any one individual act (or even lifestyle) is going to make an impact, we should bother doing things like switching to CFL light bulbs or biking, not driving, to work:

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture¦ And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others from other people, other corporations, even other countries.

Idealistic and even naïve as that may be, it seems like justification enough to change one’s ways. But it also got me thinking about how trendy going green has become, and how conflicted I remain about it. On the one hand, it’s great to see companies like Whole Foods and even Wal-Mart announce initiatives to eliminate plastic bags or reduce the amount of mercury in CFLs. Their motives aren’t pure, but the outcome is still good, and the impact is far greater than any individual could hope to accomplish. On the other hand, if the trend ever dies, then we’re back to where we started. And it’s ridiculous, almost dangerous, to give people the idea that they can save the earth by buying stuff.

Also, environmentalism has long felt like an essentially personal choice, where we decide to sacrifice our own convenience for a cause that we believe in, because our ethics and our sense of individual responsibility demand it. It’s hard to reconcile that view with a cynical, herd-following mentality. Many companies struggle, tooand I know this is a corporate blogbut a lot of us care passionately about preserving the environment, and would be quite distressed if people thought it was just another marketing ploy.

What do you think?

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