You might ask yourself, as I often do, whether efforts to separate us from our money are losing steam with the conventional pitch to our desire for things. Tough times are green times. As our ethical sympathies are brought to market to see what they, too, might bear, are we buying the difference between a better world and the one we live in?
Two recent examples present, though numerous others exist. The new Apple ads touting the recycled materials, low toxin ratios and energy efficiency of this year’s line of MacBooks come with all of the requisite greenery, both cartoon and technical, for a reduced environmental footprint. Arsenic-free glass, mercury-free LED displays, highly recyclable aluminum and glass enclosures and reduced packaging all make cameos and reward buyers of the MacBook as stewards of people and planet for what is already a superior product. No quarrel with Apple here – Eco Hustle is typed on a MacBook. Their green trajectory, however, introduces a further, virtuous element to their product. Apple is one of the companies we might expect to lead the way, and as they do, the wake of feel-good expectations splashes over onto the urge to buy.
Another, similar effort is the new 30-second spot from Brita, the water filter maker. This little ad sneaks right up on us with a woman in bed and her alarm clock going off. Words appear on the screen, innocently remarking on what is portrayed as ending: 9 hours of sleep. Then, every image fades from the picture except the plastic bottle on the nightstand next to the alarm clock, unnoticed until it is the only image remaining and punctuated with the words forever in a landfill.
Now we might think, nice – take that you plastic bottle makers. But have we separated ourselves from all the bottles in our cupboards and fridges sufficiently to acquiesce so easily? The nod slips the bounds of seriousness and ad folly without a flinch. Preservation of the planet as amusing anecdote or snide afterthought is being tacked onto everything as a secondary benefit to buying, a practice that furthers our disconnect from the reality surrounding us and the preferred Brita/Mac world. Suddenly confronted with our better selves (in the form of ethical products) we have a choice.
How this choice differs from those we’ve been making up to now, I’m not so sure. For some time it has been difficult to conceive of the damage being done to the planet on our behalf. Our relative distance separates the consequences – even of the dip in oil prices – from that of their origins. We revel in murky leaps of faith about what might affect us and when, or the power of technology to ultimately save us, all the while enabling a miraculous ability to disassociate ourselves from our actions.
The belief in indirect effects seems to be a subset of the green advertising formula. We need to expel an already suspended disbelief about where our water comes from and how much energy is required to make our laptops to begin to see a way out of this mess using your product here. The profound disconnect we have created between the way we live and what it takes to support it forms critical, if convenient, feedback loops. By the ways we entertain ourselves, the ways many of us work, we reduce the concern about climate change to what we can manage on our terms. Our continued ambivalence about where the plastics go when the recycling bin comes back empty – much less about how they got on the shelf in the first place – is left to imaginations long succored by zapping spacemen on frozen tundra.
And then as with the Apple ads, there are signs that we’re coming around. It’s increasingly common place to think about percentages of recyclable aluminum and arsenic-free glass, and it should be, given what we rely on for information and signifiers. Our products matter to us and, for better or worse, we dole out loyalty in the language of branding.
But play it out. A marketing edge to our coming around ends up where? Suspended over the gap between what we know and how we live, we are open to manipulation, even and especially by the products we love. At some point these two need to converge to begin making sense long-term. Just as we cannot absolve ourselves by the purchase of any product, we can turn our amusement with self-preservation into a working model. It may feel like two parts seriousness to one part play at first, but our knack for detachment can be extended to reuse, repurpose and scaling down. After all, no particular form of play is as compelling as work.
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