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Green Greed

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I walked into my liquor store to discover that I can "change the world" if I "change my vodka."

If I purchase "The World's First Eco-Friendly Gift Set," which includes a 750-milliliter bottle made of 85 percent recycled glass surrounding "100 percent recycled content" and producing "100 percent post-consumer waste," I can "personally join this movement … protecting the environment."

For double the cost of my typical Smirnoff, this opportunity comes in a box of various shades of green leaves and includes a Phillips CFL light bulb, which lasts nine years and will save $47 in energy costs. A pair of those bulbs, plus a Smirnoff quart, fit into "The Evolution of Vodka" price tag.

The box even provides the recipe for "Eco-Tea-Ni," a martini garnished with a mint sprig and using the New Age old favorite, green tea, and this "ultra premium vodka." Not to mention the "100% Recycled 360 Vodka Guide to Going Green."

Is America a great country, or what?

We've become the first culture in history able to purchase social and environmental responsibility with the flick of a Visa card. We can save the planet from global warming with a ticket to a concert hundreds of miles away. We can "offset" our plane flight to Puerto Vallarta by sending $4.17 to some Web site that promises to plant enough trees in unidentified places to counter the carbon our trip produces. And we can buy booze that makes us "a force of change for the environment."

If P.T. Barnum were alive today, he'd no longer be able to say, "There's a sucker born every minute." In our sped-up modern times, the frame has to be "nanoseconds."

Ever since the United Colors of Benetton began its brilliant ad campaign a couple of decades ago to sell social responsibility -- instead of its greatly overpriced sweaters — marketers have discovered this wonderful sales tool called guilt. Today, after at least a decade of "democratizing luxury," as marketer Michael Silverstein puts it, we're convinced that doing the one surely unsustainable thing — purchasing more — somehow leads to sustainability.

In an age of extraordinary communications tools like television and the Internet, marketing has successfully transcended the whole "let the buyer beware" economic system by making invention the motherhood of necessity, rather than the other way around. Marketers provide something of no practical worth and then convince us we must have it. Americans have become so brilliantly trained that we leave our brains at home when we jump into the car, or onto the Internet, with our credit cards.

Our "affluenza" is so bad it's affected our physical and mental health, as books such as UCLA psychologist Dr. Peter Whybrow's "American Mania" illustrate. Even before green marketing, Americans, though only 4.5 percent of the world's population, used 30 percent of the world's resources while, not coincidentally, having the highest obesity and stress rates in the world.

While America's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are twice that of the next highest country and six times the carbon usage of the typical Chinese, we cavalierly drive across town and pay extra to purchase something allegedly "green."

Adam Smith would, I think, be horrified. The father of capitalism was talking about a rational system where buyers and sellers know each other and recognize that, as the good old boys say, "what goes around, comes around." He couldn't possibly find "self-interest" in conning ourselves into buying objects of no practical value, and he'd likely faint if told about all the driving we do to get to those useless items.

Consider again my "Evolution of Vodka" gift box. A discerning consumer might wonder what exactly "100% post-consumer waste" means. Does it imply that 100 percent of the packaging — the glass and the cardboard — will be thrown away after the consumer guzzles the 750 milliliters?

That's certainly sustainability in action.

Even more so, what possibly can "100% recycled content" mean? We're talking about vodka, after all. How does one recycle vodka? My memory of "Mutiny on the Bounty" — admittedly hazy — indicates that a couple of Captain Bligh's sailors met their maker after they drank their personal "recycled" liquid.

Thankfully, the Earth Friendly Distilling Company's processing is "chlorine free," which means that the Missouri bottler must not use city water. Because most municipalities treat their water with chlorine to kill bacteria, the green marketer likely sucks water out of the Missouri River, certainly a pollution-free source, being downstream from Iowa's hundreds of feedlots and millions of square miles of corn doused in nitrogen fertilizer.

But the saddest concept in "eco-friendly gift sets" — of all products, not just vodka — is that selling "eco-friendly" masks reality. If we Americans are going to deal with our greenhouse emissions, our pollution, our obesity, our affluenza, our incredible usage of oil, we must address our overconsumptive living habits.

No matter how much we purchase, sustainability simply ain't for sale. S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union and a transportation researcher who now lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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