Whenever we decide to buy something, we often decide whether to buy "green." It is a complicated choice because we confront a lot of options. For every product you can buy, someone seems to have created a "green" version. "Organic" labels can be found on everything from mushrooms to nail polish, and you can even buy fuel-efficient leaf-blowers.

Although we usually see a "green" option whenever we buy anything, some things stand out as oxymorons. Buying a hybrid SUV, for example, is not a good move if you are honestly trying to reduce your carbon footprint.

Biasing consumption habits towards "green" products make sense for an environmentally conscious consumer, but only if you limit your options to "buying green" and "not buying green." A third option, "do not buy at all," is actually probably the most environmentally justifiable of them all. We do not hear this option very frequently, because no one is building a business on the message, "do not buy my product!" I also suspect that getting people excited about buying "green" products is easier than getting people to stop buying things in general.

For example, buying a Prius is exciting because it is a new car and because it gives you the image of being an environmentally conscious member of society. If we are talking about a family that already owns two cars, making do with two is definitely the "greener" option, considering how much energy it takes to build a car.

There is no look that goes with not buying products, except for maybe homelessness, but if you go and buy a lot of new clothes made of hemp and organic cotton and organic nail polish, then you can still satisfy your shopping needs and look like an environmentally-minded person.

You can let people around you know that you are drinking fair trade coffee, or the drivers on the road will see that you are a Prius driver, and you think better of yourself because you are such a smoking hot hippie.

The effort to reduce carbon emissions has very little to gain from convincing people to switch from buying not-green products to buying green products. For example, while compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are much more efficient than incandescent bulbs, turning lights off is a better option than both.

Every time I fly at night, I am amazed by how much energy our cities burn by keeping the lights on. One option is to replace all the lights with CFL bulbs; the better option is to turn the lights off (duh?) and, of course, the best is to do both.

Once you understand that consumerism and environmental consciousness are at odds, you start noticing all kinds of ironic efforts at green business. I recently heard of an event in Portland called a "Joycott." This event rallies a bunch of people to one business on a certain day, and that business donates a portion of the day's profits to a green source.

Of course, the organizers of this event are well intentioned, and I am sure that the recipient of the donated profits will make good use of the money. But this type of event is encouraging consumerism, which is the opposite of what we need in order to reduce our carbon emissions.

Let's say that this "Joycott" is promoting a lunch spot frequented by business employees. The "greenest" option here is not for employees all over Portland to drive 10 minutes for a meal, but for people to bring a lunch from home, with a cloth napkin.

By comparison, events like Bowdoin's dorm energy competition are great, because they encourage people to develop habits that reduce their consumption. Similar competitions like, who can drive the least number of miles this month, or buy the fewest new clothes in a year encourage consumption-reducing habits. Contrast these with competitions that see who can buy more "green" stuff and you see why things like a Joycott seem a little misguided.

If one thing is clear in the comparison of Joycott with energy competitions, it is that we cannot rely on businesses to generate an ethos of environmental sensitivity. That is because no business will ever turn a profit from discouraging people to buy.

Business can appeal to our sense of environmentalism to lure us away from other stores replacing "non-green" with "green" or to encourage us to buy more "green" products which we do not really need, like a stack of organic cotton T-shirts, when our wardrobe is already sufficient.

At best, we end up buying the same amount of stuff, but now it is green. At worst, we buy more than we did before. I like to think of this as coating everything we own in biofuel algae. It looks environmental, but it is actually worse for the environment than not buying any of the "green" products in the first place.

It follows that only organizations that do not deal with profits can foment the changes we need to actually reduce our consumption. That is why Bowdoin holds the energy saving challenge and NSTAR does not.

I know of a hilarious George Carlin piece where he talks about how attached people become to their "stuff." When families go on vacation, the parents are worked-up until they move into the hotel room and unpack all of their stuff. People feel more comfortable after they have collected stuff and when they are surrounded by their stuff.

Another way of thinking of environmental consumerism is to prove Carlin wrong and cut your need for stuff, "green" or whatever. Next time you consider a purchase, you will likely choose the energy star gadget, the fair-trade coffee, or the Toyota Prius. But the most important thing to do is consider whether you really need to buy the stuff in the first place.

Jonathan Coravos is member of the Class of 2011.