Trendy Environmentalism

By Cameron Ayles, Ajah Davis, Sarah Roytek, and Taryn Shanes

Trendy environmentalism complicates the environmental narrative. Sustainable products have come onto the scene in recent years as ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ alternatives to the products all around us. Companies large and small promote their environmental image as a way to attract customers. The drive to adopt sustainable trends is thus, at least in part, rooted in a deeper interest in expanding the consumer base—a potentially troubling development for the environment at large.

On the one hand, the products consumers prefer to buy and the enhanced reputation of brands and businesses as “good” and “ethical” can further humanity’s sustainability goals. Even the most incremental steps and small habits – foregoing the plastic packaging on produce, opting for biodegradable bamboo silverware, reducing your animal product consumption, or bringing along your reusable grocery bags – can serve as a gateway into more drastic action. Such value-signaling may serve as an indicator to businesses and policymakers that climate change and sustainability play a critical role in spending habits and decisions.

Yet, while this has its benefits, the promotion of sustainable trends can also be deeply detrimental. Trendy environmentalism opens the door for individuals and corporations to write off more structural change or abandon positive progress altogether. For instance, the building industry has seen a surge in sustainable building techniques. From the use of certain building materials to the building’s design, consumers place a great deal of value on sustainability. Over the years, sustainable design and building trends have proven to generate higher returns for real estate investors and building professionals. Thus, in the building industry, as is the case with many corporations, sustainability has at times become a marketing ploy to generate greater profit.

In order to truly induce tangible change, there must be a collective effort on the part of our designers, producers, investors, consumers, and politicians to stay true to environmental trends. From the straws through which we sip to the buildings we build, it is important for a product to respond to contemporary and future environmental and social needs, not just to private capital.

Our definition of radical hope:

Radical hope can be found in the motives and results of trendy environmentalism. If trendy environmentalism results in a greater understanding of the overall problem, then perhaps it will lead to a value shift and long-term change. For example, a teenager who experiences the trendiness of ditching plastic straws might be compelled to understand more about the impact of her choices.

On the other hand, trendy environmentalism can be discouraging at times. For example, when small changes in individual habits (the use of plastic bags, for example) allow an individual to write off greater action—hope isn’t renewed or spurred forward. If a corporation is monitoring their carbon footprint to simply keep up with the competition or win consumer approval, there isn’t much hope in true transformation of values and understanding. In our eyes, hope has the possibility of being lost in both the reasoning behind and the effects of such trends.

Radical hope is made manifest when social and environmental capital take precedence over, or at least align with, profits. Our hope is that future environmental trends, whether that be in relation to the products we use or the places we inhabit, will not be exploited merely for the sake of capital gains, but instead be used to further humanity’s pursuit of progress.


1. An Introduction to Trendy Environmentalism

“The Evolution of the Sustainability Mindset.” Nielsen, November 09, 2018

Truelove, Heather Barnes et al. “Positive and negative spillover of pro-environmental behavior: An integrative review and theoretical framework.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 29, 2014, pp. 127-138. Science Direct.

Myers, Todd. “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment.” Seattle, Washington Policy Center, 2011.

2. Trendy Environmentalism and the Consumer

Toussaint, Kristin. “Metal straws, mason jars, bamboo forks: do you have to buy more stuff to go zero waste?Vox, May 14, 2019.

Goldstein, Eric. “Will Shifting to Reusable Straws Really Make a Difference?NRDC, August 01, 2018.

3. Trendy Environmentalism in the Corporate Realm

Horovitz, Bruce. “From the Rooftops, Big Box Stores Are Embracing Solar.” New York Times, October 7, 2019.

Anderson, Ray. “The Business Logic of Sustainability.” TED2009, February 2009.

4. Trendy Environmentalism, Greenwashing in the Building Industry, and a Call to Action

McGarry, Miriam. “Architects Declare a Climate Emergency But Can They Avoid Real Estate’s Greenwashing Tendencies?Future Failure, February 13, 2020. Failed Architecture.

Waldman, Katy. “In Elvia Wilk’s “Oval,” Earth, Capitalism, and the Human Species Sink Toward Doom.” The New Yorker, May 21, 2019. (Oval is well worth the read)

T-A-L Statement on the Green New Deal.” The Architecture Lobby, 2019.

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