Monday, October 8, 2007

“Um, I’m, not sure”, or, brief thoughts on the Green Festival in DC

I have gone to the Green Festival every year since it first started in DC four years ago. It really is an amazing effort by Co-Op America to expose everyday Americans to green, compassionate and fair trade options in everything from insulation to skirts to chocolate to laundry detergent to energy to . . . more products than you can shake a dollar at.

Of course, locating these festivals in urban centers that are traditionally more progressive is kind of like preaching to the progressive choir. However, it still surprises me when so many “progressives” know very little about the options there are out there to make changes in their everyday living. Perhaps it is especially apparent in DC – where people work on policy changes, but commit very little of their personal time to living their ideals. As I like to say, in DC, even the environmentalists don’t recycle. (Case in point: two people in my neighborhood's cafe with Green Festival "Staff" shirts, both carrying paper cups. Um, every hear of reusable mugs? That shit drives me nuts!!) In any case, urban centers offer more of a welcoming (read: paying) audience to the festival promoters – it is a business (albeit, non-profit) after all.

It has really been amazing to see the consistent growth of the products aisle each year. More and more companies are tipping their toes into the commerce of green, hoping to cash in on this latest trend while living up to their own personal ideals. Business still gets a bad rep in many enviro circles – but the festival is showing that it’s still about the economy, stupid.

One thing that struck me at this year’s show, besides the increasing numbers of useful products, is that the booth occupants were surprised when I asked them more than perfunctory questions about their products. "I'm not sure" was a popular answer.

“So, do you know much about the disposal of the toxic chemicals that are used to process the bamboo pulp into cellulose for fabric production?”

“Under what conditions is your laundry dryer sheet biodegradable in 21 days?”

Sigh. Some had answers. Some didn’t. One bamboo t-shirt manufacturer said that the toxics question was raised for them for the first time at the festival (what??!) and that they needed to look into it. I don’t mean to disparage any of these entrepreneurs – I am sure they will look into the questions that were raised. I am sure they will adjust harmful practices. But the surprise in most of the booth occupants’ faces when I raised various issues just shows me that most people were not asking them much outside of: “does this t-shirt come in other colors?” And here is my conflict – perhaps that’s good. Perhaps the incorporation of green products into mainstream shopping habits is what needs to happen. Perhaps people need to just know organic cotton=good. But I worry about a lack of exploration of the reasons of WHY organic cotton is good. And the fact that buying a lot of stuff that you don’t need (even if it is green or fair trade), is still not good for our future.

But, you know what? With all my conflicted musings, I still had a great time. I had great conversations, met interesting people, ate yummy food, heard Jim Hightower and Ralph Nadar bash the Republican administration and was inspired that other people seemed to care as much as I did. And then I returned to my DC neighborhood . . . and realized that the green movement has a long, long way to go before it reaches my neighbors and all the people like them across the world. Sigh.

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