Belfast Telegraph

Why buying green is no excuse for acting mean

By Lisa Markwell

It's not easy being green, said Kermit, and what a delightful fellow he was. Turns out those who find it easy being green also find it easy being mean.

A new survey from the University of Toronto, published in the journal Psychological Science, has found that environmentally aware consumers are prone to be sneaky and unkind.

When offered a financial reward for taking part in the study on whether they shop at ‘green’ online shops or ‘normal’ ones, those who bought green also helped themselves to a disproportionately high sum.

So much for virtue being its own reward. And they cheated at a computer game, the rogues.

All very enlightening, I'm sure. ‘Nobody's perfect’ is hardly hold-the-front-page, is it?

Many of us have basked in the glow of offsetting the carbon a plane flight causes, or buying those shiny, compartmentalised recycling bins — but we're still flying, and buying.

We think the shiny halo we get from doing one good thing allows us to deflect attention from our slightly more tarnished practices — it's being tagged ‘compensatory ethics’.

Might it be true that we are born with only a finite amount of goodness. Perhaps the milk of human kindness only come in small cartons.

This kind of being mean isn't about making that £15 organic chicken last for days (roast, risotto, soup, etc), it's about being actively selfish.

What I find the most interesting aspect of this, and an accompanying survey in America, is the comparison between our behaviour in public and in private.

The second study revealed that customers were prepared to buy organic, fairtrade and ethical products in front of others, but when it came to shopping via the internet, the economy, air-freighted and otherwise un-PC were favoured.

It might explain why sales of fairtrade fashion have faltered, while other ethical products have done well.

As Safia Minney, founder of green fashion label People Tree, told me: “A plain white fairtrade T-shirt from Marks and Spencer isn't going to sell because it |doesn't bring anything new to the market. It's about getting the product right.”

Or, in other words, no one's going to say “Hey, fab plain white T-shirt. Where did you get that?” which would have given you the chance to flash a smile and say, actually, it was made in a co-operative in the Philippines where the workers have a share in the profits. We feel we can only get a warm glow if someone notices, not from layering those anonymous, ethical clothes.

We could also, of course, buy the embellished, beautiful and more expensive offering from people like People Tree.

No one could be blamed for being confounded by the finer details of what environmentally aware shopping actually is, in many instances.

Is it better to buy organic green beans flown in from Zimbabwe, or non-organic seasonal, local kale closer to home?

Is it all right to tumble-dry my clothes if I've washed them at 30 degrees?

What's worse, using plastic cutlery on my takeaway, or not rinsing and recycling it afterwards?

All vexed questions. But it's unpleasant to think that humans feel they can actively be ‘bad’ (taking money fraudulently is a bit worse than tossing a sheaf of newspapers into the regular bin) if they've earlier been ‘good’. Especially if they can be bad behind closed doors.

Of course, the truth will be revealed a week on Saturday at 8.30pm, when whether we switch off all electricity for an hour (part of the global Earth Hour campaign to highlight climate change) will be clear for all the neighbours to see. Feel free to twitch your curtains.

Belfast Telegraph


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