Equating Greenness to Goodness: The Illusion of Moral Virtue Drives Demand for Sustainable Alternatives

In recent years, the exclusive consumption of products marketed as “sustainable” has become popular among certain members of Western society, particularly those occupying the middle class. These goods and services encompass diverse sectors including food (ex. organically grown spinach), household goods (ex. reusable linen totes), and even hygiene products (ex. bamboo toothbrush), communicating a narrative that to live a truly “sustainable” life is synonymous with the replacement of conventional products with “sustainable” counterparts. For this reason, consumers often equate their sustainable consumption choices with moral virtue.

From produce to plastic alternatives, “sustainable” products are appealing to consumers on a moral premise that extends beyond the actual environmental impact of using the product.

This consumption trend is motivated by real environmental issues like plastic pollution, global warming, and ecological degradation. These issues require intense mitigation efforts to avoid climate catastrophe and preserve our natural resources to serve future generations. The aforementioned products are marketed to consumers by the reasoning that their purchase of the product will further our collective climate mitigation efforts. For example, the use of reusable totes will decrease plastic bag use, thus decreasing the volume of discarded plastic waste—a “sustainable” outcome. Along the same vein, organic produce is marketed to shoppers as a “sustainable” alternative to conventional produce for reasons such as: no pesticide use, the humane treatment of livestock, or no genetic modification of any inputs.

However, the labelling of these sort of products as “sustainable” is usually unaccompanied by a description of any any concrete “sustainable” consequence, let alone any description of how consequences such as “reduction of plastic waste,” or “no pesticide use” are effective indicators of a sustainable outcome compared to conventional products. It is for this reason that I don’t think a consequentialist perspective is well-equipped to determine whether an individual’s consumption of sustainable products is inherently morally virtuous. The actual consequences of the purchase in an environmental context are unclear and ultimately irrelevant, especially contrast to the supposed good intentions that predicate the consumption of sustainable products and are in theory actualized by choosing the sustainable option.

The next time you reach for a bamboo toothbrush or a cotton bag, ask yourself: what drives your demand for these products? Do you intend to fulfill some sort of sustainable outcome, or do you intend to fulfill some idea of yourself as a moral, “green” individual?

When choosing sustainable products, consumers instead rely on a deontological framework of ethics: one that focuses on decision making based on moral convictions rather than the consequences of the action. Therefore, Kantian moral theory is highly relevant to the action of choosing sustainable products. According to Kant, the only unconditionally good thing is the possession of a good will, which is not worth giving up for any conceivable object or desire. Moreover, anything is worth having only on the condition that it does not threaten to diminish one’s moral principles. Therefore, for an action to be good, it must be good in itself and not in relation to any effects that occur as a result, because that would make the action conditionally good; that is, only good if it produces the desired effect.

            Through this lens, it is clear that choosing the sustainable alternative is not in itself morally virtuous, because sustainable products are only good as long as they produce a desired result. As an example, let’s say that a student purchases a reusable metal straw to drink his iced coffee. If the student were to use the straw every day without fail for the rest of his life, it would divert a certain number of plastic straws from going to landfill. Let’s assume that the number of plastic straws that are foregone to attain a sustainable outcome is equal to the amount of energy that went into the production of the metal straw—this equivalence would take several years of reusable straw use to fulfill. Therefore, if the straw were to be used every day, then the action of purchasing a reusable straw would produce the desired result of reducing plastic waste.

However, consider an alternative, but more likely, outcome: the student remembers to bring his straw to the café about ten times per month, and after two months he accidentally throws it out along with his empty latte cup. Under the assumptions of what constitutes sustainability in this case, this result is undesired, and the final outcome is actually less sustainable than if the student had just not bothered to purchase the straw. The ability of goods like reusable straws to actually produce a sustainable outcome depends entirely on how the product must be used, and for how long, both of which depend on consumer behavior, and to some degree, chance. Therefore, the action of purchasing these goods is not good in itself—they are only means to a much more complicated end, which is sustainability.

Sustainable products like reusable straws are only good so long as they produce a good result–therefore, their purchase does not constitute consumer behavior that is dictated by morality.

Because these products can be thought of as means to an end, the consumption of sustainable products represents an excellent demonstration of Kant’s hypothetical imperative. The Kantian perspective requires that a good will is one that acts from duty—any decisions a good-willed individual makes should be as a result of imposed moral demands, which are universalizable and authoritative. The fundamental structure of a moral demand is the categorical imperative, which applies to our actions unconditionally; in other words, this type of imperative is not dependent on us willing a certain end. For the purposes of my argument, I will assume that sustainability constitutes a moral duty for all of humankind.

Under this construction, the following imperative may apply: Buy an electric car. While this imperative appears to be categorical at first, an end that the agent has already willed is implicit. Electric cars like Priuses are marketed as a sustainable alternative to gasoline cars. No one buys a Prius for the pure virtue of owning a Prius; we buy the Prius in order to live a more sustainable life. Therefore, the Prius serves as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, consequently the categorical imperative is really hypothetical: To be sustainable, you ought to buy an electric car. Buying the car is merely an exercise of the buyer’s will, given that she anticipated an end result of living more sustainably. Imperatives of this sort apply to us under the condition that we act on our will in a certain way, rather than in virtue of our rational will without reference to any result. Therefore, buying an electric car (or any sustainable product) cannot be construed as one’s moral duty, even if the end willed is morally virtuous.

            The underlying assumption of all discussion up to this point has been that consumers purchase sustainable alternatives with the sole intention of living sustainably. I have demonstrated that even if it were the case that living sustainably is everyone’s unconditional moral requirement, and consumers do indeed possess intentions to fulfill this duty, purchasing sustainable goods does not equate to moral virtue according to Kantian moral theory—but is also not necessarily immoral. I now aim to demonstrate in which case the purchase of sustainable goods could be considered morally impermissible under a Kantian framework.

Increased demand has led to the proliferation of accessible sustainable alternatives—reusable goods are for sale in nearly every urban supermarket, more electric cars are on the road, and sales of organic produce have reached an all-time high! Because it is frequently romanticized on social media and advertisements, the prospect of living a sustainable life carries a certain aesthetic appeal to consumers. Moreover, as public awareness of these products has increased, so has the practice of purchasing them with the intention of conforming to a trend or virtue-signaling to other consumers. Consequentialist thinkers may see this as cause to celebrate—whatever the intentions of consumers are, they are irrelevant if the increased demand for these products delivers the result of a more sustainable world, granting every being living in it some amount of pleasure. Therefore, they would argue that the purchase of sustainable products is morally virtuous so long as it provides a positive result no matter the intention. However, tastes and preferences are constantly subject to change—performative intentions are capable of producing quite unsustainable, immoral outcomes depending on the situation. Additionally, an individual who wishes to impress others would gladly follow any trend that delivers that result, no matter what negative consequences arise.

Kant’s universal law of nature can be applied to those cases where a consumer’s intention is something other than to live sustainably. The first formulation of the categorical imperative requires that an agent act on a maxim only if they would still perform that action in a world in which the maxim was a universal law of nature governing all rational beings. For example, consider a person who purchases an electric car not to live more sustainably, but with the intention of showing off how earth-conscious they are to the neighbors. In this case, the following maxim would develop: “I will purchase only those goods that impress my neighbors.”  

Must I explain this satire further?

The action of purchasing sustainable goods to impress the neighbors is morally impermissible on the grounds that no rational being would desire to live in a world in which every purchase made was out of a necessity to impress others. In such a world nobody would be able to provide for their individual needs, and we would quickly run out of resources due to overconsumption brought on by the need to continually impress others with novel goods.

Clever marketing schemes accompanied by the tendency for consumption to constitute the majority of environment-related action both contribute towards the reasoning that purchasing sustainable products represents moral virtue. A Kantian moral framework demonstrates that the conditional nature of sustainable goods affirms that there is no case in which the mere purchase of sustainable products is an indicator of moral virtue—and depending on one’s intentions, to make such purchases may be rendered morally impermissible. Just as we cannot consume our way out of the climate crisis, we cannot consume our way to moral worth.

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