Contradictions and Opportunities For a Green Commodity

James A. Fitchett, University of Exeter
Andrea Prothero, University College Dublin
ABSTRACT - This paper considers the potential for utilising the commodity form to further the green marketing project. Rather than considering the capitalist project in opposition to ecological concerns, it is proposed that the commodity form offers the potential to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour in both consumers and organisations. We put forward the view that the problem is not the commodity itself, but the contemporary organisation and structure of commodity relations. Thus, we propose ideas for an alternative, but mainstream green commodity. It is argued this can only be achieved via the utilisation and not the rejection of the commodity form. By adopting this approach organisations can then move towards developing ecocentric strategies, as discussed in the organisation studies and macromarketing literatures.
[ to cite ]:
James A. Fitchett and Andrea Prothero (1999) ,"Contradictions and Opportunities For a Green Commodity", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 272-275.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 272-275


James A. Fitchett, University of Exeter

Andrea Prothero, University College Dublin


This paper considers the potential for utilising the commodity form to further the green marketing project. Rather than considering the capitalist project in opposition to ecological concerns, it is proposed that the commodity form offers the potential to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour in both consumers and organisations. We put forward the view that the problem is not the commodity itself, but the contemporary organisation and structure of commodity relations. Thus, we propose ideas for an alternative, but mainstream green commodity. It is argued this can only be achieved via the utilisation and not the rejection of the commodity form. By adopting this approach organisations can then move towards developing ecocentric strategies, as discussed in the organisation studies and macromarketing literatures.


This paper represents an attempt to move beyond the closure that popular representations of environmentalism impose when considering the relationship between ecological issues and capitalism. Such readings inevitably locat the two concerns in opposition to one another, and although there are many instances when this approach would seem justified, it nevertheless restricts the extent to which any notion of progress of the green project can be achieved within the existing structure of capitalist relations. The problem that emerges if such readings are applied is that one becomes forced to adopt a stance that either condemns capitalism and the commodity relations that this ideology reifies, or alternatively condone the system; thus adopting a pro-market, pro-commodity position. Thankfully, developments in political economy theory and social and cultural criticism are such that neither position need be accepted. An alternative reading of commodity culture can be drawn upon to not only redefine the relationship between capitalism and the environment, but also to consider some of the ways in which green challenges can be achieved through the mobilisation of systems within commodity culture. To this end this paper is seeking to synthesize views from both the consumer research and the macromarketing literatures. The authors consider such a synthesis to be important because, it is argued, changes to the commodity form require further analysis of both consumer research issues, such as the problems of increased consumption, materialism, and conspicuous consumption; whilst, at the same time considering the impacts of capitalism and commodity culture from a macro, rather than a micro, marketing perspective.

The associated conditions and prevailing ideologies of consumption and commodity culture, at least in terms of their traditional and popular representation, do not sit easily together with the objectives of environmentalism and sustainability. Contemporary concerns over ecological damage and environmental disaster are frequently framed within a broader critique of capitalism and consumer society (O’Connor 1994, Goldman and Papson 1996, Kilbourne et al. 1997). For many writers and critics concerned with the World’s environmental welfare, the commodity form, or specifically the capitalism that it reifies, is the most ecologically destructive of all modern ideologies (Shrivastava 1994, 1995, O’Connor 1994, Purser et al. 1995). This critical discourse would seem, in some respects at least, to be legitimate especially if commodity capitalism is defined conventionally in terms of political economy. Whereas the ideology of capitalism champions the efficient exploitation of natural resources to further satisfy an ever increasing diversity of human needs and wants, green ideologies seek to implement systems by which the exploitation of natural resources can be limited within acceptable sustainable levels. The principal measure of success and achievement for free market capitalism is stable and rising economic growth, a measure that takes no account of environmental impact and which is reliant on further ecological manipulation and exploitation. Indeed, it is well documented that the environmental problem is a direct consequence of what most people regard as industrial progress (Beck 1992, Kilbourne et al. 1997). Such a reading, which is in itself an interesting example of the manner in which radical discourse is expressed in contemporary culture, has an inevitable but hardly original conclusion. Just as Marx predicted that the emancipation of the proletariat was reliant upon revolutionary praxis to overthrow capitalism and bourgeois control of the means of production, the future emancipation of the environment becomes equally reliant upon the downfall of the consumer-commodity culture.

In recent times there has been greater discussion, both within academic circles and amongst business people, of businesses cooperating with environmental groups; the role and work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for instance, is an illustration of such cooperation (DeSimone and Popoff 1997); and there are numerous other discussions of business organisations and environmental groups collaborating on environmental projects (see for instance Ottman 1998). However, the image of environmentalists and businesses being in direct opposition to each other is still widely recognised as the norm within the populr media. At the same time it is also acknowledged that the 'window dress’ response of many companies to environmental ills are inconsequential in dealing with the World’s environmental crises because these companies fail to address the importance of change required to eradicate such problems within the existing dominant social paradigm (DSP) (Goldman and Papson 1996, Kilbourne et al. 1997).

However, it is possible to reconsider the context of commodity capitalism beyond the traditional confines of political economy theory and thus contribute to eradicating the myth that the commodity form and environmental concerns will always be in direct opposition to each other. One of the most important and most useful theoretical premises from which to conduct this reappraisal is that of the French post Marxist tradition of cultural criticism represented most clearly by Jean Baudrillard’s (1975), 'The Mirror of Production’; which, along with Baudrillard’s other earlier writings, allow us to define commodity relations as a cultural discourse. By doing so we can begin to further our discussion as to the possibilities of commodity relations and environmental ends working together to produce an ecologically sustainable society and thus alter the DSP which is currently based on the premise of industrial progress (and by default the fulfillment of citizens) via capitalism.


The contemporary critique of Marxism provides a useful device to begin our evaluation of the relationship between commodity culture and the environment. Orthodox Marxist economics, whilst not directly concerned with issues relating to environmentalism and sustainability, nevertheless begins to discuss the relationship between economics, production, and society more generally. In many respects the critique of Marxism needs to be located historically in that the society in which Marx himself lived in and wrote about differs significantly to contemporary society in several crucial ways. Mass consumption as practiced today did not exist in the 1860’s when Marx was developing his contribution to the critique of political economy. The concerns that we now have for environmental protection and sustainability were also absent from economic thought and political theory and consequently care has to be taken when applying Marxist thought to contemporary economic issues relating to consumption and environmental welfare.

The strength of Marxist economics, and the reason why it has retained credibility and academic attention for over a century, is that it successfully rejects commonly held beliefs concerning the existence of universal economic laws by arguing that prevailing economic conditions are confined within specific social relations. However, whilst Marx showed that exchange-value and the commodity form were not neutral social mechanisms, but emerged as a consequence of capitalist production, he nevertheless assumed that man was a social animal who could only survive (i.e., satisfy his basic needs) through the organisation of social labour represented through a mode of production. Thus, although the capitalist mode of production is culturally relative and cannot be used to understand societies that have preceded capitalism (or conceptualise those that will proceed it); all societies share the common trait of having a mode of production, where all individuals have needs that they will seek to satisfy by utilising available resources. These anthropological conditions are for all intent and purposes metaphysical constituents of reality and any re-organisation of social relations must define how they are to be met:

'Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and all possible modes of production’ (Marx. 1976).

For Marx (as well as classical economic thinking) the environment is effectively represented as a resource. The fundamental drive to prosper means that human labour must be organised in terms of a mode of production that will enable this resource to be mastered and exploited to allow human needs to be met. Whilst Marx envisages different modes of production and alternative sets of social relations, this conception of the environment as a resource for potential exploitation (use) remains constant. In this sense Marx’s notion of revolutionary praxis does not offer any solutions to environmental crisis since emancipation is considered only in terms of social relations and the means of production, and not in terms of human beings’ relation to their environment. Therefore, a Marxist analysis cannot be utilised to justify a belief that a return to social relations prior to modern capitalism, or the establishment of relations that are supposed to succeed it (namely communism), will offer any solutions to current environmental problems. Consequently, we can argue that it is not capitalism per se that leads to environmental ills, because these also occurred, and are occurring, under communist regimes, and also arose before capitalism existed. However, it is nevertheless possible to argue that many of the environmental ills can be attributed, or are least closely associated, to the consumer-commodity culture that exists today.


It is now well accepted that capitalism and commodities are primarily cultural things not economic ones. Baudrillard’s (1975) critique of Marx, for instance, illustrates this. Thus, it is necessitated that consumption becomes the main focus of analysis in our understanding of contemporary society. Within this reasoning it is also necessary to recognise that consumption is not about objects, but moreover concerned with the system of organising modern capitalism; i.e. it is semiotic.

Commodity consumption is a discourse in which we consume the image associated with the product and not the product itself; i.e. we live in an age of consuming commodity signs (Goldman and Papson 1996) and the "commodity aesthetic" that we consume is based on consuming more for the pleasures of "individuality, status, pleasure, and the fulfillment of desire". However, within modern society this consumption is attributed to consuming more and more goods in order to seek everlasting happiness; which does not arise because we will always want more (Wolf 1990, Bauman 1992, Gabriel and Lang 1995). It is also contested that such consumption can actually decrease consumers’ quality of life (Kilbourne et al. 1997). For instance, a quick glance at the literature on addictive consumption (Elliott 1994) enables us to recognise that a consumerist society does not always lead to satisfied and happy citizens. However, does it necessarily follow that our current consumer-commodity relations can not be changed to one of sustainable consumer-commodity relations? In other words can the dominant commodity form become one of sustainable consumption, or even nonconsumption? Bauman (1992), for instance, has argued that "People are led into forgetting that there could also be other ways of self-assertion than simply buying a better outfit." Therefore, we must ask ourselves is there any reason why such a dominant position cannot be altered?


Baudrillard (1975; 1981) argues that the fundamental flaw in Marxist economic theory is its failure to recognise that the very terms used to define and differentiate capitalism from other modes of production are, on closer inspection, relevant only to capitalism. By defining capitalism as a ultural condition rather than one expressed purely in economic terms Baudrillard shows that contemporary understandings of the environment, nature, human need, and utility are just as much tied to the conditions of capitalism as are exchange and the circulation of commodities. Put simply: any definition that uses contemporary understandings of nature and human needs to define the green society cannot be differentiated from capitalism since these terms are implicit to the capitalist project itself. Baudrillard (1975, p59) states:

'What [Marx] fails to recognise is that in his symbolic exchanges primitive man does not gauge himself in relation to Nature. He is not aware of necessity, a Law that takes effect only with the objectification of nature. The Law takes its definitive form in capitalist political economy; moreover, it is only an expression of scarcity. Scarcity, which itself arises in the market economy, it is not a given dimension of the economy.. Hence it is an extremely serious problem that Marxist thought retains these key concepts which depend upon the metaphysics of the market economy in general and on modern capitalist ideology in particular. Not analysed or unmasked (but exported to primitive society where they do not apply) these concepts mortgage all further analysis.’

Baudrillard’s reasoning presents several difficulties with regard to defining ecologicalism in opposition to capitalism and commodity relations. It would seem that any revolutionary movementBwhether its intention is the liberation of the environment or revolution of the proletariatBis destined to take with it the seed of capitalism and in doing so only serve to further reify commodity relations in another guise. Proponents and critics alike are in this sense destined to share a common bondage, since capitalism as a fundamental code of cultureBto paraphrase Foucault (1974)Bwill establish for everyman, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing with and within which he will feel at home.

Baudrillard’s now generally accepted critique of Marxist commodity theory leads to but one conclusion: that the success of the green movement cannot be measured by the extent to which commodity relations are undermined but, on the contrary, by the extent to which the commodity form is utilised to achieve ecological objectives. If the overthrow of commodity culture is not considered a viable strategy by which environmental concerns can be addressed then only two alternatives remain: the green movement can either continue to battle against the institutions and structures that sustain and disseminate commodity relations or it can embrace them to further the cause. The first project seems doomed to failure because as has been pointed out here, the ideology of capitalism, and the institutions which support this ideology (Kilbourne et al. 1997), will sustain itself despite whatever revolutionary charges are made against it. The second alternative would seem to provide the only constructive prospect since it seeks the incorporation and mobilisation of the very same systems that have led to environmental destruction, enabling these same concerns to be addressedBto work from within the system in an attempt to instigate change rather than searching fruitlessly for a more radical, and indeed mythical alternative. This is not to say that the authors believe there should not be changes to the DSP, but moreover propose that one maybe able to achieve this by working within, rather than against the system.


To reiterate, the focus within current commodity relations is mass consumption. Some would even argue hyperconsumption (Kilbourne et al. 1997). This is as a direct consequence, not only of the consumer society, but also the DSP which promotes such consumption. However, the commodity form does not have to be attributed to mass or hyper consuption. This is simply the ideological bent attributed to it by the capitalistic DSP which prevails. Consequently, the question we must ask ourselves is whether we can utilise the commodity form in a manner which promotes sustainable consumption? A number of pieces have been written on what sustainable consumption is (Sto 1995, Hansen and Schrader 1997, Heiskanen and Pantzer 1997, Salzman 1997), the challenges of sustainable consumption (Brundtland 1994), and also what sustainable consumption could entail (Kilbourne et al. 1997, Robins and Roberts 1997). We would like to propose ways in which the commodity form can be utilised to promote such sustainable consumption, rather than be seen as the cause of our environmental ills. Consequently, as discussed in this paper the existence of consumer-commodity relations would change to one of sustainable consumer-commodity relations.

Such a movement would still involve satisfaction via "individuality, status, pleasure, and the fulfillment of desire" as discussed earlier, but this consumption would now be premised on an environmentalist ideology. Consequently, these would be achieved via consumers consuming less, and those goods that are consumed are as ecologically sound as is possible. However, ultimately we are talking about the decreased consumption of material goods and services. Thus, in such an instance the "commodity aesthetic" and the signs we consume can be altered to match the environmentalist ideological bent rather than the capitalistic one. Consequently, the question which remains is to consider how do we tackle such a turnaround within the current system of consumer-commodity relations based within the existing DSP of capitalistic ideals?


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