Photo by Casey Gomez

If renewable resources, sustainable design and earth-friendly technology were truly profitable enough, we would have turned away from the alternative decades ago. Since the Industrial Revolution, mass production has led to flourishing economies and innovation at the price of polluted air, water and soil. Despite widespread use of terms like “green” and “sustainability,” modern business practices will never be completely environmentally friendly, not until sustainability is tied to the ultimate incentive: profit.

Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, the idea of a “green movement” began in the wake of toxic environmental disasters such as the Love Canal and the activist work done by environmentalists such as Rachel Carson. Since the 1970s, consumers have made a conscious effort towards buying sustainable products, conserving resources and in general adopting more earth-friendly habits. “Green” has become a buzzword, the subject of marketing campaigns for everything from electric cars to U2 concerts.

However, there is a difference between marketable and profitable. Companies gravitate towards producing things that will be bought en masse and using the cheapest materials and production techniques, which while efficient and inexpensive, prioritize profit margins over environmental impact. Meanwhile though, the idea of earth-friendly products made of recyclable material is alluring and popular, the majority of consumers still will often prioritize a lower price, especially if they do not have the economic means to afford the more expensive but sustainable options.

In short, you cannot “go green” without the green.

As consumers, we do have some control over the directions production will take by voting with our wallets. We can encourage producers to invest more research into sustainable products by mainly purchasing sustainable products ourselves, creating a market where the environmentally friendly is favored over the cheap. While national governments can pass regulations and laws to control the environmental impacts of production, few companies will make sustainability their first priority unless they have the profitable incentive to do so, which comes from the consumer. Though it is nearly impossible to research and purchase every product that only uses environmentally-safe manufacturing processes and is completely environmentally friendly, we can make little changes such as buying things made of recyclable material or things that can be recycled and reused themselves. If we wish to continue using natural resources and existing on this planet, we will have to make some concessions within our own behavior.

The shift from the smog-heavy days of the Industrial Revolution to the environmental movements and focus on sustainable products proves that we have come a long way in terms of environmental awareness, but we still have a long way to go in terms of keeping consumption from outpacing responsible production. It is hypocritical and, on a larger scale, dangerous to turn this green movement into a passing trend. The only way to bring about a permanent shift where environmentally-friendly products are seen as the norm, not the alternative, would be if consumers shifted away from cheaper, less environmentally-friendly products, and producers caught on and followed suit.