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The credibility of buying green

Asian spa culture: ‘Supposedly a timeless oasis where an Eastern woman takes her time to give Western tourist a wonderful massage.’

By Petra Meijer

Although fair-trade and organic products are trendy, going green is merely a façade, claims anthro­pologist Bart Barendregt. “The notion that you can make the world a better place with your money or with a mouse click is
elitist and simplistic.”

(Het originele Nederlandse artikel staat hier)
“Green consumerism is based on the idea that you can help make the world a better place by spending your money on the ‘right’ things: installing an app to check that your bottle of wine is guilt-free, buying ‘good gold’, eating fair-trade chocolate or using cosmetics based only on natural ingredients.”
Bart Barendregt, a senior lecturer of Cultural Anthropology, and his former colleague, now an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam, Rivke Jaffe, have written a book on the rising popularity of large-scale green consumers: Green consumption. The Global Rise of Eco-Chic. “The term ‘eco-chic’ was actually coined by the fashion world. Even then, I thought it expressed an exciting contrast. Nowadays, it also covers inner beauty, local and organic food, sustainability, authenticity and spirituality.”
Ethical consumerism is not anything new. “Back in the day, I used to work in an ecological shop where we also sold justifiably produced cacao. The difference is, a small group of health food weirdos used to shop there while now ecological stuff is cool. Film stars are seen to support ethical projects and we can watch Jamie Oliver choosing local and fair-trade products on television. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it always costs. The ‘chic’ in eco-chic is created by the tension between cool and attainable. If it’s attainable for everyone, it’s no longer cool. The coolness also makes it easier to cash in on it. Take Albert Heijn, for instance: they launched 250 organic products but withdrew them from the shelves only a couple of months later; that cost them their credibility.”
Although he thinks that green consumerism really can make a difference in some cases, it is difficult not to be cynical. “The whole idea that you can make the world a better place with your cash or a mouse click is elitist and simplistic. Besides, it forces ordinary housewives and mothers to shoulder the responsibility, as they’re usually the ones who do the shopping: it’s up to them to solve all the problems and make the right choices.”
Moreover, the choice is a luxury: “I spent years in a squat with other white kids who were all vegetarians. Then I did field research and stayed with families who shared what little meat they had with me – it made me realise that it’s a luxury to choose what you eat.”
Going green is also a just green façade, claims Barendregt. “Nowadays, quinoa is cool, but the original producers have been priced out of the market. And what about the Indonesian dish nasi kampung, made from yesterday’s leftovers? Once the more expensive restaurants in Java started serving it, Westerners couldn’t believe the delicious simplicity of the dish. But it was created because people didn’t have much else to eat. And that’s how ‘slow-food’ restaurants, usually run by foreign chefs, became more and more popular. And I know for certain that we’ll see a huge growth of ‘green Islam’, with everything suddenly being called halal: halal organic food and halal spas.”
The Western hype has led to the rediscovery of traditions in Asia too, where they are presented as an antidote to Western globalisation. “More and more people are starting to appreciate natural cosmetics and local ingredients – all wrapped in the same brown paper with the same Victorian font.” Barendregt studied the spa culture in Asia: “A timeless oasis where an Eastern woman takes her time to give Western tourist a wonderful massage, but all the while, she’s got an eye on the clock because she has to collect her four children from school and she hopes that her personal touch will be rewarded with a small tip to supplement her meagre income.”
“Green consumerism is not reactionary, obviously. Sometimes, students ask me: wouldn’t it be better to consume less than to consume green? I felt the same way for a long time too, but I’m having second thoughts. It’s a start, and that’s a good thing. Look at mobile phones: they’re hardly ever recycled. If you could make green, biodegradable telephones cool, you really could change the world for the better. And there’s plenty of work to be done to stimulate paperless offices and technology, that would make a difference. Besides, ecological consumerism does not necessarily have to be posh. Just buy your eggs or chicken from a local producer and choose nourishing products instead of processed foods.”
And is he himself susceptible to the appeal of green consumerism? “Of course. I can’t the resist the words ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethically justifiable’”, admits the anthropologist. He smiles and pats his belly. “I’m a foodie. I love going to the farmer’s market in Loosduinen, where you can buy six quails in a carton. There’s bingo in the evening and you can win a liver sausage. It’s all a bit friendlier.”

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