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Not your feel-good fad

Back in 2011, when Earth Hour was fairly new and trendy, one of the big supporting events in my city was a lights-off outdoor show that featured the lighting of dozens of sky lanterns. In the relative darkness, the sight of floating lights was spectacular, dreamy, magical. It made us feel all warm and fuzzy to be part of the event.

Of course, we would later realize that those sky lanterns posed a risk to wildlife due to their thin metal wire frame. And critics would later point out that using brightly lit advertising and carbon-emitting candles during the campaign canceled the point of lowering carbon emissions.

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“Feel-good environmentalism” is the term used to describe such activities. It’s about being “motivated more by feeling good about protecting the environment than actually protecting the environment,” as environmental scientist Leon Kolankiewicz succinctly puts it.

On the surface, it seems harmless to indulge in that warm, fuzzy feeling when helping Mother Earth. It’s like a reward for doing good. After all, it takes a (tiny) bit of personal sacrifice to give up plastic straws or unplug unused appliances. It’s a contribution to the cause, and indulging in the rewarding feeling seems to be beside the point.

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But when feeling good is all the motivation we have for joining environmental campaigns, when we readily jump into any fashionable advocacy without even educating ourselves about it, our actions will ultimately be worthless or even detrimental.

That 2011 sky-lantern event was a clear example, and there are many other ways that surface-level environmentalism runs counter to real, effectual efforts for the environment. Sometimes, these ways are so subtle that we have to take the long view to see the impact.

Take this story about coffee. In 2013, researchers conducted a series of experiments where they asked people to taste two identical cups of coffee. Both cups were from the same batch of coffee beans, but the taste-testers claimed that one cup tasted better and that they would pay 25 percent more for it. The magic of this “better” cup was that it was labeled with two very familiar words: “eco-friendly.”

The study suggested that “an ‘eco-friendly’ label is sufficient for a product to taste better” and consequently entice consumers to pay more. This put a strong spotlight on greenwashing, or the practice of deceptively marketing a product as environment-friendly. Likewise, it highlighted our tendency to be easily manipulated as consumers when businesses capitalize on our pleasant yet uninformed feelings about buying green.

The trouble with this oblivious “green consumption” is not just that it makes us give away our money unquestioningly. It also lulls us into a false sense of comfort and righteousness with our purchasing decisions, distracting us from truths that really matter.

Truths like the fact that “eco-friendly” is a fluffy PR adjective that answers to no concrete standards. Even when a product is labeled “eco-friendly,” it may still be sourced, manufactured, or transported using environmentally harmful methods. Some food companies, for example, may be burning rain forests for palm oil, but we resist so little because labels like “organic” and “fresh” make us feel like we’re doing enough good.

There’s also the fact that businesses are still inadequately regulated when it comes to practices that affect the environment. Where laws do exist, they are often so poorly implemented that they are practically useless. Science-based, well-implemented laws are perhaps the most crucial element in environmental conservation, yet we forget to push for these laws when we hear that our favorite brands are already “nature-friendly.”

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Protecting and conserving our natural resources should not just be a feel-good trend; it is not just a “run for a cause” T-shirt we can effortlessly slip on and off. It is a massive undertaking that needs to root well beyond superficial feelings.

Does this mean our plastic-straw refusals and garbage segregation are meaningless? Not at all. As much as there need to be top-level interventions from governments and corporations, it is also essential for us to contribute as individuals. But we need to be conscious about it—aware of the products we’re using, mindful of the decisions we’re making, educated about the campaigns we’re supporting, and realizing that we can do more.

This is what gives our actions meaning: doing good not because it feels good, but because we are conscious of its impact. The warm, fuzzy feelings are just a bonus.

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