Are Wealthy 'Super Greenies' Really that Earth-Friendly?

Instead of pushing us to keep up with the Joneses, marketers wants us to keep up with the Greens. But green living doesn't require an 150K salary.

The “Super Greenies” are an annoying bunch. To begin with, they exhibit saint-like dedication to the green catechism. They bring cloth bags to the grocery store to carry home their locally grown, organic food and eco-friendly cleaning products; when they must drive, they make sure to take their hybrid vehicles; they use rechargeable batteries in the electronic products that they later recycle; they donate time and money to environmental causes. And on top of that, they are more educated and make more money than most Americans: more than $150,000 each year.

But, according to Scarborough Research, a company that provides consumer insights to media and marketing companies, Super Greenies also indulge in behaviors that are decidedly not environmentally friendly. They’re 60 percent more likely than the average American to own a second home. They’re 85 percent more likely to have spent more than $500 in one year on fine jewelry. Apparently they really like photography, and are more likely than others to buy cameras, as well as TVs, perfumes, skin care products, men’s clothing, and a host of other items.

This is why green consumerism is not going to save the planet. It’s been clear for awhile now that buying green laundry detergent and eco-friendly lipstick won’t make a dent in the world’s carbon emissions, especially not if the people most dedicated to those products are buying twice as many in order to stock both of their houses. Back in May, Bill Gates, who’s been investing in clean energy technologies, argued that on an individual level, even big green investments like rooftop solar panels are merely “cuteness.” Real solutions, he argued, lie in systematic changes, like an increase in large-scale solar farms.

It’s not that change can’t happen on a consumer level; it just takes more dedication, more effort, and more sacrifice than the Super Greenie lifestyle entails. In the aftermath of Fukushima, Japan is painstakingly bringing down its electricity use, and it’s requiring large-scale, government-mandated rethinking of cultural norms that include how high thermostats in businesses offices can be set on a summer day. (The new answer is: much, much higher than Americans are used to—from 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.)

One of the most common complaints about eco products is that they’re expensive. But they're still held up as the ideal. Instead of feeling pressure to keep up with the Joneses, we’re feeling pressure to keep up with the Greenies. Perhaps it's time to take a step back and consider the simple ways for even Super Greenies to live earth-friendlier:

Fly less. Higher income city-dwellers tend to do so much jet-setting that they can cancel out all the environmental good they do by living in dense, walkable communities. Airlines are using more biofuels, but flying will always consume enormous amounts of energy, even if you’re in a tiny electric plane. Plus, ticket prices are only going up. Take the train, or skip the weekend jaunt to Europe.

Buy less. Scarborough’s media and marketing customers likely don’t want to hear this, but living green means buying less. According to the company's research, Super Greenies are into gardening, biking, photography, hiking, and yoga as hobbies. All of those activities can be used as justifications for buying more stuff. Pick one or two, instead of five, and buy only what you need—not some gadget you'll never use. If you have to spend $500 on fine jewelry, make it vintage.

Live in one small house. Less stuff means that a smaller place won’t feel like it’s overflowing.

This is also a problem of definition. Super Greenies should earn their title based as much on what they don’t do as what they do. That approach might not appeal to marketers, but it’d be more accurate.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user texantiff23.