This month at Postconsumers, we’re shining the light on some activities, hobbies, niches or even social norms that are ridden with consumerism but are often thought of as being postconsumer alternatives. Today, we’re tackling the sensitive topic of green and eco-friendly products. While it may seem as though these types of products are a sure fire win to buy when compared with less eco-friendly options, not only is that not always true but an insidious industry of consumerism has certainly grown up around the green movement. Today we’ll take a look at some of the inner workings of it.

Where There is a Void, Something Will Fill It

If there is one thing that is true in marketing, it is that marketers and businesses are always looking for new “markets” to make money from (some might say to exploit). There are actually entire divisions in many companies called the “Emerging Markets” division that research and pay attention to new areas that the company could develop products or marketing campaigns for to expand their profit base. The morality of emerging markets departments is up for debate, but we’ll handle that topic at a later date. What you need to know for now is that, once the green movement began making traction, it became a target rich environment for marketing and product development.

Yes, Green Products Have Always Existed. But Now Is Different.

There’s never been a time when there wasn’t a segment of the population who was concerned with environmental friendliness, the naturalness of what they were using and reducing harmful toxins. And there have always been stores that catered to those people and smaller companies that produced the types of products that they were looking for. But the movement took a larger turn in recent decades. The green movement began to grow well before Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, but many experts point to that documentary and its mass public appeal as one of the real turning points in the movement. We’ll use that as a marker as well and say that the marketing appeal of green products really took off between 1980 when the first Whole Foods launched and 2006 when the documentary was released. Since those times, green products have become an industry. And to understand why marketing tactics are so valuable in the industry, it’s important to understand why the consumer space became so important.

Green Product Consumers Are Somewhat Ideal

It would be nice to think that the explosion of retail opportunities and products in the green space happened because the manufacturers and marketers truly believed that eco-friendly products were important and wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had access to them. And in some cases with some companies that’s actually true (or at least that’s how the company got started). But there’s another truth to consider, and perhaps nothing represents it more than the joke in which Whole Foods is referred to as “Whole Paycheck.” Most eco-friendly consumers come from a higher income bracket. That’s certainly not always true, but there’s also a reality that the higher your income bracket the more luxury time and income you have to worry about the impact of toxins, GMOs and chemicals. You’re also more likely to be more educated which means that you have a greater understanding of the importance of natural products, and more educated means more income in most cases. So, in short, green products were an avenue penetrating a desirable purchasing demographic who had specific product concerns moreso than they were a noble attempt to save the planet and create healthier people.

Where There is a Demographic, There Are Standard Consumer Practices

Marketing is nothing if not predictable, and where there is a demographic there will be best practices of consumer marketing that follow shortly after. The most obvious of these was the rise of the eco-friendly and organic dedicated sections in big box stores like Target and even Walmart. Once such large retailers began promoting these products, then larger companies began manufacturing and selling them. That led to the most consumer infiltration of eco-friendly products, a practice called greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a company uses your proclivity for wanting to buy an eco-friendly product to market a product by proclaiming its natural ingredients or earth-friendly status when, in reality, there are still plenty of non-eco-friendly elements about it. They are just choosing to use the marketable eco-friendly ones to capture your purchase.

And the Culture of More Exists in Eco-Land as Well!

Despite the fact that many environmentalists will say that they want to reduce consumerism and the amount of waste on the planet, they’re just as susceptible to the culture of more as any other consumer. And marketers know that. That’s why they’re constantly introducing new products, creating sales and promotions and suggesting that you don’t just need one carton of organic yogurt, you need a dozen. You don’t just need one flavor of eco-friendly lip balm, you need all eight. And do you need that eco-friendly lip balm at all? Maybe not, but marketers and the culture of more want to have you believing that you do. Eco-friendly products are just that, products. And products suck in addictive consumerism like a vacuum, increasing rather than relieving pressure on the Earth.

So How Do You Shop Green Responsibly?

The answer to this is no different than for any other niche you may be shopping in. Do your research. If you have a smartphone, use the Buycott app.  Set limits for buying green and eco-friendly commodities the same way that you would for anything else. Practice considering “need versus want.” Find the satisfaction of enough for today. We do think that it’s always better to buy a green product as opposed to a non-green product, because at the end of the day you vote with your wallet on what the world will be like. Just be aware that even earth-conscious products, companies and brands are playing the consumer marketing game.

Did we miss a way that consumerism seeps into green products that you want to share with us? If so, just tell us about it on one of the social media channels below.

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Photo Credit: Alexa Clark via Flickr