In chapter 8 of The Politics of the Environment1, author Neil Carter discusses benefits and drawbacks to the ecological modernization concept. He identifies its lack of concern for consumption as a serious limit to its potential success as an environmental policy. While ‘green consumerism’ aims to push businesses toward implementing ecological modernization, it falls short of its sustainable ideal because it encourages higher levels of consumption that offset gains in productive efficiency.
Ecological modernization is a strategic approach to greening industry. It seeks to transform the production process so that progressively fewer natural resources are used to make goods. Costs of production can be reduced by improving productive efficiency and employing technological methods to reduce waste (p.227). The concept also encourages “a more fundamental rethinking of manufacturing process so that large-scale production systems… are gradually phased out”(p.227). The result should be a “decoupling” of economic growth and resource use so that continued increases in living standards will cause progressively less environmental impact (p.227).
‘Green consumerism’ is the practice of knowledgeable shoppers making purchasing choices based on environmental criteria. This practice has “stimulated demand for goods that minimize environmental damage in the way they are made… and in their impact when used”(p.228). Recently, Walmart, the world’s largest corporation, announced a green labeling initiative that will supposedly allow customers to “consume in a more sustainable way”2. The green labels will rate products on several aspects of their environmental impact3. Theoretically, this transparency will encourage Walmart’s suppliers to undergo ecological modernization in order to increase the environmental friendliness of their products and compete in the green marketplace.
Carter points out several problems with ‘green consumerism’ that clearly limit its impact. ‘Green consumerism’ requires knowledgeable consumers, but shoppers are often misled by marketing tricks. Increasingly, corporations are guilty of “greenwashing” their image to appear more environmentally friendly than their record indicates4. So ‘green consumers’ may not actually be making environmentally beneficial choices.
But having made their green purchases, consumers’ sense of environmental guilt is overcome and they continue to maintain high levels of consumption. Ecological modernization is only superficially ‘ecological’ because it “recognizes no limits to growth” and assumes green production allows limitless consumption (p.232). Ecological modernization implicitly encourages greater consumption of green products, which tends to offset any environmental benefit of an increase in productive efficiency or waste reduction. So the effect of ‘green consumerism’ seems to contradict the decoupling theory of ecological modernization.
Demand for green products remains strong, indicating green purchasing may be a core lifestyle element for many consumers5. But, while ‘green consumerism’ is an increasing market force that encourages business’ ecological modernization, its key weakness is that it just alters the type of consumption, not the level of consumption needed for a sustainable future.
~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor
 Carter, Neil. 2007. The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Walmart Sustainability Index
 NY Times 7/16/2009 “At Wal-Mart, Labeling to Reflect Green Intent”
 Business Ethics: “What is greenwashing and why is it a problem?”
 PR Newswire Asia: “Soaring demand for green products in China”