A labyrinth of poor choices

Miqui writes*

The shoes are recycled, upcycled, organic, vegan, made in the EU, and come with a promise to plant two trees! The fashion industry is pushing our buttons and pulling our levers to temp us to purchase new shoes, without guilt. The green movement has become trendy and hip as it’s expanded beyond hippies. In Green consumption: the Global rise of Eco-chic, Bart Barendregt argues that green lifestyles are now part of capitalist society. Now elites combine their environmentalism with taste and personal wellness.

It is, however, the question whether this green movement is actually helping in achieving our environmental goals. Genuine pro-environmental behaviour is severely limited by bounded rationality. With bounded rationality people strive consciously to attain certain goals they have in mind but are also strongly limited in making an optimal choice by things like information gaps, information asymmetries, heuristics and a range of biases.

This bounded rationality is gratefully abused by some parts of the fashion industry. In this, companies make “unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness in an attempt to gain market share”. Because of our bounded rationality people are not well equipped to stand strong against this greenwashing and consequently end up buying products that do not deliver the environmental-friendly result that the ad or label promised.

One thing is clear, sustainable consumption is an oxymoron. Consumption of products practically always involves the use of resources and the production of waste which in an overpopulated earth inevitably harms the environment. Sustainable consumption is no consumption.

Nevertheless, we can reduce our footprint by buying recycled, upcycled, organic, vegan, second-hand and offset emissions. As explained above, we are very limited in making a choice with an optimal environmental result.

For example, the promise of a shoe brand to plant two trees if you buy their product sounds like a great deal for an environmentalist, but do most people know whether these two trees actually compensate in any significant way? It does for your consumer shame but with regard to the environment it is a complicated question. The image of two large, full-grown trees and a pair of shoes probably comforts you with regard to the CO2 emissions. Perhaps those trees actually do compensate for the CO2 emissions but the production and sale of shoes involves much more than the CO2 emissions.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on footwear tells us that the use of energy, and the raising of cattle in the case of leather shoes, indeed has a huge impact on global warming. However, what this LCA also shows is that there is a striking impact in the solid waste management phase and that cattle raising also results in significant acidification and eutrophication of environments. An important factor in this assessment is the studied production area which considerable affects the impact of production. What this means is that offsetting CO2 by planting two trees does not compensate the wide range of environmental impacts.

With this in mind, is it possible for a mainstream consumer to make a well-intended choice with an optimal environmental result? Arguably not. Most people simply do not have the time, resources and capability to come to such a result. According to Thomas P. Lyon, a business professor at the University of Michigan, says that “the ideal system for regulating green marketing claims would entail comprehensive labeling and certification requirements”. Whether labeling and certifications are helpful in promoting environmental behavior is not clear. Lyon compares it with making right decision in relation to healthy food as he argues that “there’s not a lot of evidence that those nutrition labels have changed America’s eating habits.”

Bottom line: The green movement is turning trendy. More people are developing environmental awareness, and pro-environmental choices are going mainstream. We are on the right track, even if we’re a bit distracted as to what it means.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “A labyrinth of poor choices”

  1. Good analysis and overview of ‘green’ consumption, and nicely woven together with the specific topic of your shoes. If you would like to go deeper in the direction of greenwashing, the following paper provides a very nice overview of the literature on the topic:
    de Freitas Netto, S.V et al. (2020) Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environmental Sciences Europe, 32, pp. 1-12. |Available at:

  2. Very interesting topic! Very true that buying something labelled green/organic without even checking the credibility/meaning of the label alleviates the guilt from the consumer – that is if they care about the environment.

    I would to an extent argue against the statement “sustainable consumption is no consumption,” as sustainable consumption would be possible if we harvest natural resources at a replenish-able rate. Albeit, it might not be achievable in a world with 7+ billion people, which you alluded to.

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