Eco-friendly hair care and organic cotton socks aren’t going to solve complex systemic issues like global warming and sustainability, despite what you’ve been hearing from green marketers lately. 

In fact, these mere Band-Aids for patching up environmental problems may actually do more harm than good by distracting us from finding the root of our sustainability problem, argues John Ehrenfeld, author of Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture (Yale University Press, $17).

Though sustainable development has been touted as the catchall solution to a whole host of environmental problems, Ehrenfeld says that it’s not actually a vision of the future, but “merely a modification of the current process of economic development.” In short, we’re still developing, so we’re still having an impact on the environment.

That’s partly because many of the so-called solutions that claim to help you live a more sustainable life are really just a call to buy more products with “eco-friendly” labels, a misleading term since almost all consumer goods have some impact on the Earth and are rarely “friendly” to it.

To counter this consumer-oriented line of thinking, Ehrenfeld introduces a new, distinctive definition of sustainability that takes a “radical stance” by defining sustainability as “the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever.”

But defining sustainability in this way is hardly a new concept. Many people currently strive for sustainability for the very reason he mentions — so that they might leave the Earth the way that they found it (or better) for generations to come. 

Though Ehrenfeld missteps by claiming this definition entirely as his own, he effectively calls attention to the systemic issues of consumerism and materialism that are prevalent in our society and that are largely responsible for environmental problems like global warming and sustainability.

He says: “Our identity and self-worth become conflated with all the material objects we acquire to provide satisfaction for our needs and solutions to all the ‘problems’ in life. Life becomes Sisyphean; the realization of self is the rock we push uphill to reach the promised land, only to have the material burdens it represents overcome us and push us back to where we started.”

Ehrenfeld dedicates most of his book to this issue of rampant consumerism and its detrimental effect on society and the environment, effectively leaving the reader with a clear notion that buying our way out of this crisis is simply not going to work.

But throughout the book, the author risks losing the reader’s attention with an impenetrable writing style that focuses too much on abstract ideas like “authentic living” and not enough on real world examples that will inspire readers to strive for true sustainability through a higher meaning in life. As a result, readers will most likely be left wanting more discussion on actual solutions to the problem and less line-by-line analysis of the problem.

Despite this pitfall, readers will come away with a strong message that’s present throughout the book: that we should be focusing on the “being” mode of human existence rather than on the unsustainable “having” mode in order to bring a sustainable world within reach.

Otherwise, as Ehrenfeld maintains, we will continue to “strive ever harder to realize the world of our deepest longings, only to find it receding further from our grasp, perhaps unconsciously counting on a crisis to wake us up.”

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