The risk of conspicuous sustainability


Back-to-school shopping is a piece of cake with my 16-year-old son, Jon.
We don’t shop. And I love it.
He gets tennis shoes every year for his July birthday, so I’m off the hook in September. And his daily school uniform is shorts and school sports T-shirts that multiply faster than rabbits. Two new football T-shirts came home just last week. I consider that his new school wardrobe.
Add a “collared” shirt for church and school picture day and we’re set.
But high school is often the time when teens are bombarded with label-itis. You aren’t cool unless you have a shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch or Polo or wherever. Your shoes must be Nike. Your possessions are your status.
Some never outgrow that lack of self-confidence. Even in adulthood, they define themselves by the car they drive, their zip code, their vacations, their kids’ sports.
Enter the latest trend: being green.
Environmental consciousness is hip. I’m cool if I drive a Prius. Al Gore is my hero.
England’s Queen Elizabeth has converted two royal Bentleys and two Rolls-Royce limousines to be more fuel efficient. And I’ve read that embracing solar technology has become such a status symbol in Japan that there’s even a company that sells fake solar panels so your neighbors will think you’re green.
The new phrase for it is “conspicuous sustainability.”
We take our environmental awareness labels and wear them on our sleeve. And spend a lot of money to do so. Why reduce our excess when we can pay someone to offset it? Why fund research for more fuel efficiency when we can simply fund research into alternative fuels?
Neal Dikeman, a founding partner of technology and investment adviser Jane Capital Partners, recently wrote conspicuous sustainability in his blog.
“… we are reinventing Conspicuous Consumption – keeping up with the Joneses in all things green. You have to wonder if solar panels or a LEEDs rating on a McMansion somehow doesn’t miss the point,” Dikeman says.
It’s a warm fuzzy and a status symbol all in one – capturing the American consumer of today right where he thinks he should be. Kind of like the Whole Foods Markets. I’m making a difference and look how cool I am.
Conspicuous sustainability not a totally bad thing, Dikeman adds, and I agree. We all need a little awareness about our actions and their consequences. Options, like hybrid cars, on the market will only increase with demand, even if that demand is fueled by actors who think the cars are chic.
Hey, if it drives economics, we Americans are all over it.
Bottom line: The American society is far too materialistic. Rather than paying someone else to cover our carbon footprints, maybe we should just step back.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at


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