Do you have to be rich to be green?
Sustainability, it seems, is associated with affluence – at least if the projects proclaiming their green-ness is any indication. And it isn’t just because the cost of green technology is that much greater. (Indeed, if a project is well planned from the beginning, recent research indicates, there’s no necessary surcharge to be a LEEDer.)
At the Gaining Ground conference in Victoria last week, developer David Butterfield gave a stirring talk on his Loreto Bay project – a vacation spot in Baja California. He was rightfully proud of its commitment to sustainability, and also aware of its paradox: most people will fly there, many to their second homes. By any standard, this is a project available to only a minescule fraction of the world’s population, whose carbon footprint will be comparatively gigantic.
How many times is it pointed out that Al Gore flies around the world to give talks on global warming? Having flown to Australia myself to speak of sustainable urban development, I’m aware of the 8.5 tonnes of carbon allocated to me as just one passenger (and the $154 Australian dollars needed to mitigate it.) But I’m rich enough to afford it. – and aware that the rest of the world would like my options. I know what is more sustainable, and it’s not mitigation and carbon credits. It’s staying at home.
It may be that at this stage, the rich will lead the way by modifying their high-consumption tastes, and thus provide a model for others. But the trend so far seems to be to modify the technology, to spend even more to buy the Prius, than to do with less. The tough choices are thus avoided.
Phillipe Starck, possibly the world’s most high-profile designer of luxury goods and interiors, spoke, well, starkly, about this dilemma the other day in Milan, according to Reuters:

The designer, who decorated the private apartments of former French President Francois Mitterand, said people should only buy essentials.
“The most positive action is to refuse…to buy. But if you need to, the minimum is ethical. To go back to the essence of things and ask myself: do I need this?” he said.

He still designs luxury yachts, even as he speaks to their uselessness. But he is “keen to turn other accepted views of what is luxurious on their head.”

“In the future, there will be two choices: luxury as it exists, mostly linked to the crazy rhythm of fashion, and also new brands with … time value considerations, based on ecology, progress, timelessness.”

Presumably, the value added for these new brands will be expressed in the price. But is this really any closer to the solution?


  1. It has long struck me that ‘sustainability’, at least its current fashionable form, is as much about selling stuff to people with a decent income and a guilty conscience as it is about cutting down waste. When you’re not so well off, you aren’t consuming as much in the first place (good) but don’t get much help from government or the market in finding alternatives to everything that’s cheap but wasteful (very bad indeed), and spending more for some green-labelled product isn’t feasible (you’re stuck now, buddy!)
    Instead, the ‘sustainable’ alternatives tend to be pitched at a small but desirable audience. The classic example for me is that hybrid vehicles get hype and tax breaks, while late-model four-cylinder compacts get no love even though there are far more people who can trade their SUVs and minivans for four-bangers than can handle the upfront cost of going hybrid.
    This is probably why I can’t be bothered with local sustainability expos and fests. (Well, the touchy-feely new age lingo also scares me off, but…)

  2. While I can certainly understand and in some ways share the concern that the next wave of green businesses will simply sell us “more green stuff” but still too much of it, and in the end we’ll still be isolated and unhappy in our big green homes all alone, that’s not the future I see. I see this current wave as a transition, and it’s getting people excited about making what is, let’s face it, an enormous, gigantic change both personally and culturally as a system.
    People are also waking up to the unhappiness that still nags after we have all the stuff, green or not green. People are starting to ask the even bigger questions. And, I believe, it is in the asking of those questions about meaning, purpose, service, and community that the biggest changes will come.
    All we can do is stay positive, do what is right for you, DON’T belittle people for doing their best to improve things or being “further behind” on the spectrum as we are, and be an example in our own lives as much as we can on what full spectrum” or integrated sustainability means, which is way beyond having green stuff. And let’s have more fun! We’d be amazed how many people continue to “come over” when they see what a great life it is.
    On a different note, nice article Gordon, I’m glad you met David (full disclosure, Loreto Bay has been a large client of mine for 3 years). I personally don’t intend to own a home in another country but what they are doing there is totally next level as far as how development is practiced on the planet right now, within a true “regenerative” framework, and it has the potential to open up a lot of minds to what is possible. People will come after Loreto Bay and move the ball further but David and his team need to be commended for doing what they have done, which took an enormous amount of vision, passion, energy, and risk at the scale they are operating.
    Jason Mogus

  3. It makes some sense that in order to impact people heavily into consumerism and luxury goods, you need to use the tools that appeal to that segment of the market. The expensive tote bags seen on TV come to mind versus the 99 cent ones at Superstore or the reuse of a cotton tote bag received free at any business conference.
    People who already grow their own vegetables, have compost heaps, rarely eat out and have little disposable income probably have a smaller enviromental footprint anyways.
    But I do agree that marketing hype does tend to taint any message put forward.

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