The False Promises of Green Materialism

Recently, I’ve been thinking about buying a new pair of shoes. I don’t need new shoes—the pairs I have don’t hurt my feet, aren’t broken, and are sturdy enough to last through Virginia’s comparatively mild winter. But I want new shoes because I think they’ll make me happier—I’ll look better, and won’t that in turn make me feel better about myself?

Whenever I make a new purchase, I tend to juggle two competing concerns: the hit on my bank account and the impact whatever I’m buying might have on the planet. I’m a graduate student and a sustainability researcher, so these two things are important to me. We all know that it would be best for my finances and the environment if I didn’t buy new shoes at all. But if I’m willing to spend more, I can get sustainably made shoes. Even though it might not be the best financial choice, it means I still get the happiness jolt of buying something new without hurting the planet. Win-win, right?

If I switch to buying sustainably-made products, I can get the happiness jolt of buying something new without hurting the planet, right?

Unfortunately, neither of these ideas hold up under scrutiny. Recent research suggests not only that it is better for the environment to forgo my new shoe purchase but also that buying less, and not buying green, is associated with greater well-being and lower psychological distress.

To learn more, I reached out to the Sabrina Helm, lead author of the study. Helm is an associate professor of retailing and consumer sciences and director of the Consumers, Environment, and Sustainability Initiative at the University of Arizona. We discussed the emergence of green materialism, how buying less improves our well-being, and how we might opt out of consumer culture this holiday season.

Michaela Barnett: In this study, you looked at two types of behaviors where we could all benefit by practicing more sustainability: our financial and environmental behaviors. How are these related and what led you to combine them?

Sabrina Helm: For a long time, sustainability meant having enough economic means to do what you wanted and needed to do. That was a connotation of the term sustainability long before we talked about environmental sustainability. All of these behaviors relate to managing restricted resources.

We were interested to see whether there are links and what factors affect consumers’ well-being in the context of limited resources. And that’s why we were interested in this interplay between materialism, proactive financial behaviors, and what we termed “proactive environmental behaviors,” and how those combine to affect consumers well-being.

On the environmental side, your team looked at two types of sustainability behaviors—green buying and reduced consumption. How are these different and what different effects might they have on the planet?

If we strive to become more sustainable, we have to look at the composition of what we buy and we have to look at the overall volume of what we consume. If you look at green buying, that means consumers are concerned with looking for products that have less of an environmental impact than traditional kinds of products. That has to do with the composition of our consumption—we buy differently.

If you look at the other form of pro-environmental behaviors that we were looking at, reduced consumption is directed at the volume of what is being consumed. Reduced consumption really means that we try to buy less, that we repair items that break, that we avoid all sorts of impulse purchases. We try to stay within our own needs or perceived needs of what we want to buy.

Instead of buying a sustainably produced cell phone, try and use the one you have as long as possible, and repair it if it breaks.

Or think about whether you need it at all!But maybe that’s an extreme example. It’s very, very hard to imagine a life without a cell phone. There are many other things out there.

There’s a lot of research that suggests that materialism depletes our financial and emotional bank accounts. But you and your coauthors thought that green buying would be different. Can you define materialism for us? And is there a difference between run-of-the-mill materialism and green materialism?

Materialism has to do with the importance that possessions have in your life, whether you perceive high value and involvement with the possessions that you have, whether you feel a need to acquire more possessions, whether the act of acquiring more possessions leaves you with a positive feeling. Materialism has a variety of different facets, but overall it has to do with how important material possessions are in your life. Our argument is that if you follow your materialist aspirations and you continue to buy products, even if they are green products, and thus have a better composition from an environmental perspective, that still does not mean that you are altering your lifestyle. You’re still accumulating more and more possessions and may also think that they are very important in your life.

That is in opposition to what we call reduced consumption, which is not linked with materialism. Because if you don’t buy, you don’t accumulate more possessions, and that means your possessions are most likely not as relevant in your life itself. Green materialism is a loophole for continued consumption and not changing your lifestyle.

We thought originally that…buying green and buying less should have a positive impact on well-being…We did not see that emerge with green buying, but we did see that emerge with reduced consumption.

Materialism is a trait, a value orientation, whereas green buying is a behavior. There’s a lot of literature that directly links materialism with mostly negative well-being consequences. We thought originally that both of these greener behaviors—buying green and buying less—should have a positive impact on well-being, because they are proactive coping mechanisms.

We did not see that emerge with green buying, but we did see that emerge with reduced consumption. That’s in-line with literature on voluntary simplicity, which tells us that if people no longer feel burdened by all their possessions and try to reduce their footprint in terms of all the stuff that they accumulated, that gives them a positive well-being effect. Green buying, by definition, still means buying more stuff and therefore does not alleviate the burden of possessions.

I was intrigued in the takeaway section of your paper when you talked about how one thing we could do is encourage alternative forms of consumption, like collaborative consumption as a means to improve young consumers well-being. What are some more examples of these alternatives, and how can they help improve environmental outcomes as well as our own well-being?

Developing a mindset that questions the consumerist model that we have followed is increasingly helpful. That has to do with how we perceive status in our consumer culture and what it takes to be part of the in-group. Can I achieve that if I don’t have the right possessions? And there’s some indications that maybe that’s happening.

We talk a lot about fast fashion and how young consumers are very happy to embrace second hand clothing. There’s no taboo around secondhand stuff, and that’s a fairly new and a wonderful development. Much more so than it used to be, which was a hand-me-down from your family and that was not status building.

Your paper has generated a healthy amount of media attention, with most outlets focusing on the “don’t buy green, buy less” angle. Is there an aspect of your research that you wish people would talk about more?

Well, hardly anybody ever looks at the other side—the proactive financial coping behaviors. But they are also extremely important to understand. But I think what’s really important is one of the implications our research is that financial education is massively important.

We need to be continually attempting to have young consumers with increased financial literacy because that clearly taps into well-being and puts them in such a better spot in their life moving forward. And that’s so important and comparatively simple.

Why do we follow this consumerist ideal…when we all know it’s not the values that we are trying to convey and live?

But when we deliver this financial education, we also have to be aware that that consumers nowadays have been brought up with this consumption ideal. There’s a product for everything. And if you have any kind of problem, here’s a solution. Buy this, buy that. That’s how we function and that’s how we spend our money, waste our money, and therefore also get into financial problems that make us feel unhappy and decrease our well-being.

We need an integrated financial education that also emphasizes the positive impacts for your own well-being and the planetary well-being of consuming less. It has financial, psychological, environmental benefits—kind of an integrated consumer financial education.

That would be wonderful: how to deal with restricted resources.

The busiest buying season of the year is almost upon us. How can those of us (especially those of us with kids in our lives) feeling the pressure to buy, buy, buy apply this research to have a happier, less stressful, more sustainable holiday season?

Well, it depends on the age of the kids. Very young kids are not necessarily impressed if you give them something that’s not material. What everybody else is probably much more impressed with is spending time with you.

And that’s the easiest takeaway from our paper and a lot of the other research conducted in that domain. Why do we follow this consumerist ideal—a holiday honoring shopping—when we all know it’s not the values that we are trying to convey and live? Why?

It’s about reconsidering how we live and how we spend our time and how we spend our money. The interesting thing is everybody agrees when you tell them, actually, if you spend time with your children and you read to them and you play with them, that’s the thing they remember and not the umpteenth toy you bring them. And luckily now for that purpose we also have secondhand markets. That’s something to consider: buy a toy that already has a story. Just clean it before use. (Laughs).