GREEN IS THE NEW Black: the lure of Conspicuous conservation
Note: This article is not about people who don’t have the resources or time to worry about their consumption habits but is about a very narrow and privileged American middle- to upper-middle class who are most often seen virtue-signaling how much they care about the environment.
Something strange happened during the two years of the pandemic: along with shared trauma, our society seemed to have experienced collective amnesia regarding our commitment to responsible use of resources. I’m not talking about the absolutely essential personal protective equipment; I’m talking about essentially useless items that became part of our daily rituals.
I remember visiting Boulder in the summer of 2020. The busy hustle and bustle of Pearl Street was slightly subdued compared to previous summers. However, most businesses stayed open to accommodate tourists and locals’ need to eat out - after all, those government checks were sent to be spent... I met up with a friend one night to get ice cream. Although I don’t particularly care for a cone, I’ve made a switch from the cup when I started awakening to the reality of how much trash we generate.
The cone is a perfect solution to the single (or double, if you’re not holding back) serving problem of the food industry. It’s the banana peel of the soft-serve world, except it’s even more versatile - serves both as packaging and a vehicle, with the added bonus of providing a delicious crunchy finish to your meal. A few years back I read about a startup making edible cutlery out of rice and millet flour and thought that was an ingenious solution for takeout. Pair that with a taco bowl, and you've got a zero-waste lunch.
So, when it was my turn to come up to the plastic screen barrier of the improvised outdoor counter, I ordered one scoop of strawberry and one Valrhona chocolate in a sugar cone. As I stepped aside to wait as my order was being fulfilled inside the store, I chatted optimistically with my friend about how adaptable and resourceful people have been in these strange evolving circumstances. It’s only been a few months of the “new normal”, yet it seems like we have figured out how to live our lives without much interruption.
I heard my name and went up to the window. The employee handed me a little paper bag and I instinctively pulled away, waving: “Oh, I thought you said ‘Katia’”. The girl looked at the receipt stapled to the bag and back to me: “Yes, this is for Katia – two scoops in a cone?” That was correct, but where was the cone? Was it another pandemic adaptation, a flat-bottom cone that can stand securely inside the bag without the risk of dropping the balls?
I said thanks “Thank you” and took my bag, wondering what was inside. As I opened it, instead of a sandy waffle, I saw a glossy plastic Frappuccino cap, with a white spoon sticking out of the straw opening. It covered a translucent grande cup that held a tiny cone with two hefty servings of creamy goodness, propped by a fat stack of paper napkins on the side of the bag.
I was perplexed. Why does an ice cream cone need 4 – no, 5! – accessory objects? And why was I not asked if I wanted my cone IN a cup?
The conciliation was that the packaging was biodegradable – the cup was made out of plant-based PLA and the spoon of sturdy biopolymer. For a regular consumer, that may have been enough to absolve their conscience, but I studied Materials Science and Engineering in grad school and know that replacing plastic with industrially-compostable plastic is not a solution. Neither is recycling. Neither is buying carbon credits to offset your business travel.
While science keeps providing desperate band-aid solutions to our overconsumption problem, the landfills keep getting larger. For a conscious consumer, ethics play a big role in switching from single-use products to reusable options. This has led to an entirely new industry of environmentally-friendly alternatives that are slightly better than what we currently have – a smaller, concentrated laundry detergent bottle instead of the 1X strength; a silicone zip-lock bag instead of plastic ones.
If you are a typical middle-class millennial customer, you are likely to pay more for those products because they have those comforting “clean” and “green” labels. Whether the impact they provide is tangible is another question – if you look at the entire life-cycle, including sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and the “after-life” of the better-for-the-Earth alternatives, it shows that few of them make a dent.
How much of what drives our eco-conscious choices is neither science nor ethics, but marketing? Your cool Boulder neighbor drives a Tesla, which gives him instant cred in the city and a confidence boost. However, the amount of carbon (and don’t forget other resources, like rare earth metals, chemicals, etc.) spent to manufacture a Tesla will unlikely be offset in the lifetime of the vehicle. Even if it did provide a slight net benefit – if buying a Tesla is a virtuous act, does buying two make you even more virtuous?
Before buying an electric vehicle, that Boulder guy had a regular car, and that car was still in good shape, good enough not to need replacement. But he decided to upgrade to a cleaner, sexier model. What’s another way not to burn fossil fuels when you move around town? Walk. Bike. Skate. Longboard. You name it. Something that doesn’t involve buying a $70,000 big-boy toy made out of plastic, rubber and metal.
Instead of offsetting your footprint by buying more, maybe we should spend time doing activities that don’t require special gadgets, like walking. Those types of footprints won’t stain the Earth.
Aerial photo of the Florida Keys Barrier Reef