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Wendy Gordon Headshot

Real Materialism is a Virtue

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Turns out a lot of people, not just Dick Cheney (remember the quote "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but..."?), perceive green consumers as simply upscale do-gooders with enough discretionary income to buy the hybrid car, the organic food products or the high-end play equipment. But when the economy is on life support, the argument goes, the green consumer is nowhere to be found.

This view is not all that surprising considering the celebrity-hyped, consumerist economy-in-overdrive that has been our common experience for the last quarter century. But I believe it underestimates the depth of the green consumer movement. Green consumers are not so upscale. In fact, polls consistently find environmentally minded consumers across all income brackets, and show that most of us are solidly in the middle. It also reduces green behavior to a narrow band of purchasing decisions, when in reality green intersects with virtually every aspect of daily life. Indeed, just how important "green" is in daily decision making becomes all the more apparent when times get tough, gas and food prices go up and credit tightens.

Real "greenies" are savers, "savorers" and materialists who care about things, according to Wendell Berry. In a throwaway world, they take pride in shopping for durability, in knowing where to get their shoes and zippers repaired, and in running their appliances during off-peak hours to save money on electricity. They may not be recession-proof, but they sure have the right instincts.

You see, green isn't about buying a third, fuel-efficient car. Or about buying organic food shipped halfway round the world. It's the opposite, really. It's about living responsibly and taking better stock of what one has and what things truly cost. It's about taking the train to work, insulating your house and buying electronic equipment from a manufacturer with a good take-back program. All these things save money and preserve resources.

A green consumer is fundamentally a smart consumer who aims to live well, but also to live wisely. She connects the dots, preferring to make more meals at home from fresh food produced and delivered with the least amount of fossil fuel, because she know that it's best not just for her health, her wallet and the environment, but also for our energy security.

The economy may be down, but don't count the green consumer out. What if we come through this recession with a new sensibility about the production-consumption cycle, one where durable products are valued, where conservation of natural resources is paramount and where we don't borrow from our children with no plan to pay them back? If we do find this new sensibility, you can count on it, the green consumer will be leading the way.

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