Supermarket and Green Wave

An Urban Sociological Field Experience in Brazil
  • Josi PazEmail author
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There is an ecological imperative established in the consumer society. Ecocriticism of the consumer society was raised when the environmental movement was born, but has become stronger lately as a repercussion of the anthropogenic hypothesis of global warming. As the greenhouse effect warms the planet, the material and symbolic effects of the global warming debate affect the issue of consumption. A green wave has taken over supermarkets in the West, where green products, eco-bags, and recyclable packaging, to name a few, have become more familiar. In this context, “human being” and “individual consumer” sound like equivalents, and the concept of “consumer society” becomes a metaphor for “humanity.” This article points out the main lines of the sociological debate that emerges from this turning point, and approaches some theoretical perspectives on consumption. It also presents some excerpts from qualitative field experience developed in two supermarket chains in Brasília/Federal District, the capital of Brazil – one located in a high-income region and the other in a low-income region.


Consumption Climate change Environment Supermarket Brazil 


Consumption is a natural process; it arises from the profusion of objects and is presented to the individual as gifts from heaven. The consumption experience works as a miracle, although it is a human activity and not obedient to natural ecological laws. All this characterizes a type of fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species, because even though objects do not constitute a flora and fauna, they give the impression of proliferating vegetation – a jungle where the new wild man of the modern era has a hard time re-encountering the reflexes of civilization.

This image was proposed by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard to define the consumer society and is one of his most ironic metaphors on the semiotics of this society (Baudrillard 1995). His work, The Consumer Society, from which this text was paraphrased, was originally published in French in 1970 and became a reference for discussing the daily experience of consumption and understanding the historical unfolding of this cultural practice. In this sense, Baudrillard’s ideas essentially contribute to a deeper analysis of the “green wave,” a market trend that has hit supermarkets in the Western world as a repercussion of the global climate change debate.

Baudrillard’s work is one of the main references in this article on green consumption in Brasilia, capital of Brazil . Two supermarket chains were visited, located in two unequal urban contexts, one of low-income consumers and the other of high-income consumers. Both supermarkets were exposed to the so-called green wave of consumption. This article discusses the wider repercussions of the environmental debate on consumer issues, especially the anthropogenic hypothesis of global climate change, which has become an ecological imperative in consumer society (Paz 2012).

About Consumption

Although Baudrillard refers to nature, he does not approach the environmental issue: his issue is the “consumer society.” Still, he highlights the problems that emerge from a society full of things (Baudrillard 1995). The author refers to consumption as an order in the manipulation of signs, in which the sign “nature” allows consumers to escape from a wrecked empirical reality. In this perspective, the ecological appeal inscribed on green packaging, for instance, approaches nature as an escape in two possible ways: (1) by emphasizing the natural origin of the ingredients as an escape from industrialized products and (2) as an escape from a particular lifestyle. This is why the natural environment is also present in the green appeal of goods. Consumption of the sign nature gives the possibility of “consuming” an absent natural environment or one that no longer exists.

The consumer society presented by Baudrillard is different from the perspective of the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman . In Consuming Life (Bauman 2008), he prefers a “society of individuals that consume” instead of a “consumer society,” alluding to the relational and dynamic nature of the interaction and the interdependence of individuals and objects, distinguishing this contemporary type of sociability. Bauman discusses the impact of the attribution of value to objects in human relations, which places consumption as a parameter of life itself. Bauman’s perspective is different from that taken in the late 1970s by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that led to research first published in French in 1979 in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Bourdieu 2007). Baudrillard and Bourdieu have different theoretical and methodological perspectives and interests concerning this issue.

Bauman discusses the subject in a third line of approach. If “consumer society” is the object of reflection of Baudrillard, for Bourdieu the debate on consumption includes questioning its analytical framework, which combines qualitative and quantitative research on the formation of taste. The differential trait in Bourdieu’s (2007) socio-analysis, however, is not only in the inflection of a theoretical–methodological slant on the theme of consumption, as Baudrillard (1995) does, but also in questioning the researcher and the instruments used to substantiate its worldview. Although he addresses the theme of taste formation tangled in the consumption debate, Bourdieu (2007) ultimately discusses the scientific methodology itself. Like Baudrillard, Bourdieu analyzes the power game – mainly in the cultural sphere, where acquisition practices interfere even in the meanings of works and arts: “Although it manifests itself as universal, the aesthetic disposition is rooted in the existence of particular conditions … it constitutes a dimension, the most rare distinctive and distinguished of a lifestyle” (Bourdieu 1983).

The three works, The Consumer Society (Baudrillard 1995), Distinction (Bourdieu 2007) and Consuming Life (Bauman 2008), have different readings on consumption that coincide with different contexts in the sociological debate on the subject, and therefore to different historical moments of this society. Baudrillard reacts to the advent of consumer society and its objects; Bourdieu reveals in what measure objects are valued in the consumer society; and Bauman, at a time when the profusion of objects and consumption as a way of life are crystallized in contemporary life, discusses consumption as a parameter of life itself. Consumption would be repeated, as well as being a parameter of the human condition. Bauman (2008) criticizes the importance given to the consumer as a parameter of contemporary subjectivity: our lives are now for consumption, he says.

On a timeline, consumer configuration as a sociological issue also goes back to Roland Barthes (1985) and Georg Simmel (1987, 1998), and certainly shows its influence in The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (2004). In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the American Daniel Bell (1996) pondered the symbolism and the material impact of one of the objects that would become the most iconic item in the consumer society: the credit card. In Latin America, the Argentinian Nestor Garcia-Canclini (1996) discussed consumption as a gesture of citizenship. However, before all these texts, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, first published in 1899 by Thorstein Veblen (1974), founded the notion of conspicuous consumption” that still explains the dynamics of the consumer society, in which the acquisition of certain objects aims to denote status and social differentiation. In a recent article, relying on Veblen’s importance in understanding contemporary society, Currid-Halkett (2017) points out the extent to which the democratization of consumer goods has disrupted this process of demonstrating status through things; after all, regardless of differences and inequalities, both the rich and middle-class have modern TVs and purses, travel by plane, etc. For Currid-Halkett, because everyone can now buy designer bags and new cars, the rich have been led to use more tacit social position symbols. The consumption of environmentally friendly products is one of the forms of expression of this discrete consumption, or “ inconspicuous consumption .”

These man-made artifacts are used to distinguish the status of humans, to centralize the environmental critique of consumption. Climate has begun to be placed as a social issue, around the local consequences of human artifacts, remains, and remnants of evolution (Henson 2011). The idea of “global” warming is therefore only possible in a world that thinks globally about consumption, following the global paths of the economy and communications. David Harvey (1996) describes this historical process, which takes place as discourse and daily experience that shapes the notion of humanity in a global perspective. This is one of the impacts of the socio-historical configuration of globalization: an understanding of the human experience that passes through consumption. Globalized goods help make sense of a world much larger than the locality.

The Supermarket and the Planet

Green consumption refers to a positive outlook on consumption as an individual choice – amidst ambiguities and contradictions – with the possibility of changing the planet’s future. In the supermarket, packages invite people to seal the Earth’s destiny. Observing how individuals interact with objects helps in understanding the extent to which consumer culture (and therefore consumption and lifestyle) can work as a key to thinking about contemporaneity. As the Hungarian sociologist Agnes Heller (2004) says in her book Everyday Life, the assimilation of object manipulation is how people become adult in everyday life, and how an adult becomes able to live by himself in daily life, as social relations are assimilated by manipulating things. In this perspective, the daily manipulation of objects in a consumer society also implies socialization forms.

People learn how to be consumers, to understand visual codes, to recognize what is expected from their acts in different situations between individuals and objects in consumer society. Taking a product from the shelf, paying for an object, waiting in a queue, and the prerogative of not leaving the supermarket without exchanging goods for money are all acts that flow without being noticed. For Bourdieu (2007), this incorporated knowledge, the capital knowledge acquired or incorporated in the social trajectory, explains these gestures and the formation of lifestyle and taste. In Distinction, Bourdieu (2007) breaks with the notion of taste and of individuals’ identification with a particular lifestyle as being something of their own. In his view, taste is the result of overlapping power relations grounded in the culture-transmitting institutions of capitalist society. The preference for certain products and the possibility of choosing environmentally friendly products, for instance, is about the existential question of whether to be or not be a conscious consumer: this is about income and recognition of the green value added to the product as being relevant and decisive regarding consumption.

There is a set of procedures that can be considered a socialization index related to the manipulation of objects, which contributes to create and legitimize some choices possibilities. In this sense, the green wave of consumption and its prescriptions (buy organic , recycle, reuse, use eco-bags instead of plastic bags, etc.) brings new consumption gestures that involve taste issues. By pushing a trolley through the supermarket aisles, consumers indicate the preferences and possibilities of consumption: the individual takes longer in front of some shelves, choosing items (removing one item from the shelf rather than others). Different strategies are implemented by the supermarket to retain consumers and to make them circulate, exploring their different buying potentials.

The level of interdependence of the global complex society in which we live in relation to the supermarket is not only an icon of the consumer society, but also its fundamental metaphor. In the supermarket (any supermarket) we are all consumers. The consumer can be found in this space, regardless of specific social contexts concerning individuals and the location of stores. The supermarket can be seen as a cultural and material expression of spatial overabundance in supermodernity:

The second accelerated transformation specific to the contemporary world, and the second figure of excess characteristic of supermodernity , concerns space. We could start by saying – again somewhat paradoxically – that the excess of space is correlative with the shrinking of the planet: with the distancing from ourselves embodied in the feats of our astronauts and the endless circling of our satellites. (Augé 1994)

Auge emphasizes the difference between space and place, defining space as a more abstract notion, based on non-measurable magnitudes. Instead, Michel De Certeau (1998) defines place as stability, “the order [of whatever kind] in accord with which elements are distributed in relationship of coexistence” and space as “occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it.” For Augé (1994) , there is an opposition between place and non-place . For De Certeau (1998), space is not necessarily opposed to place. “The space could be to the place what the word becomes when it is spoken,” he says, when defining space as “a practiced place.” According to De Certeau’s perspective, a supermarket can be understood as a place crossed by different spaces, but in Augé’s perspective, a supermarket would be a non-place of supermodernity:

Clearly the word “non-place” designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces. Although the two sets of relations overlap to a large extent, and in any case officially (individuals travel, make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another; for non-places mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others, which are only indirectly connected with their purposes. (…) the non-places create solitary tension. (Augé 1994)

For Augé (1994), the individual of a non-place would be alone, resembling the others around, with identity suspended (a non-place characteristic) and remembered only on the basis of contractual relations. Personal identity is declined until the advent of a situation, which is limited to the supermodern experience. In the supermarket, for instance, the individual handles the supermarket trolley and moves with it through the supermarket without communicating to anyone; nobody asks the individual’s name, where they come from, or what they are looking for. Furthermore, the individual does not need to ask any questions or interact with other individuals, who also take their own courses in the supermarket. The supermarket is a less prestigious non-place because of the higher frequency of female consumers , observed Augé (1994), but the supermarket is a place of general consumers, whatever their identity.

In the supermarket, the price of a product is given on a label or obtainable via a bar code reader, but it is assumed that individuals know that they must pay for the objects chosen; they know that they have to go to the cashier before leaving the supermarket. From Augé’s perspective, until the individual goes through the cashier, all consumers are the same person, because the personal identity of the individual only becomes relevant at times, such as when using a credit card, cheque, or money, when then the minimum of interaction is necessary to identify the individual. According to Augé, the moment at the cashier’s desk in a supermarket relates to the non-place’s contract:

Alone, but similar to others, the non-place user is (…) in a contractual relationship. The existence of this contract is remembered in some opportunities (…): the flight ticket he bought, the card that must be present at the cashier, or even pushing the trolley in supermarket aisles relates to a more or less strong contract. (Augé 1994)

The problem with Augé’s view is that his emphasis on the idea of non-place as an architecture of modernity does not take into account the individual bonds that also constitute the dynamics of this space, especially in a supermarket. Although the author appropriately draws attention to the merely contractual relations of non-places, field experience in a supermarket allows one to observe that human relations of affection, recognition, and routine often affect those contracts. If the individual lives near the supermarket, the store may be visited with such frequency that supermarket employees become recognized and known. In a situation of doubt about a particular product, help might be given and, from there, a personal link could be formed.

In order for the supermarket chain to be recognized as belonging to some region in which stores are located (neighborhood, street), its facade, interiors, sections, thematic design, and even the commercial name used need to be linked in some way to the context surrounding the physical structure. Two examples from a sociological field study in Brasilia, capital of Brazil, are described to illustrate this.

Brasilia is the result of an architectonic and urbanism project created by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa . Named a “Heritage of Humanity” by Unesco , the city’s modernist architecture is peculiar: the central part of the city is an area called Pilot Plan, with residential areas called Superquadras or Superblocks, spread in north and south wings. From the air, the city resembles the shape of an airplane or a bird. Around the “airplane,” there are other cities – administrative regions – also called satellite cities. The whole area is defined as the Federal District. In turn, the administrative region of Brazlândia is the furthest from the Pilot Plan and has mixed urban and rural characteristics. Its design resembles a small town, with a central shopping area, church, public square, residential neighborhoods, and rural areas. The supermarket visits described in this article occurred in two locations: Pilot Plan, Brasília, and Brazlândia, Federal District (Paz 2012) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Map of Brasilia, including administrative regions; Federal District, Brazil

The green wave of consumption referred to in this text refers to the marketing strategy that emphasizes aspects of composition, communication, and packaging associated with the commercialization of certain products, offered as better or with less impact on the natural environment. Such marketing suggests that consumers who purchase these products also have its qualities: one who buys green is green. In many cases, this offer appeals to an individual’s care for their personal health, which evolves toward gestures of care for the health of the planet. Acts such as separating garbage and the use of returnable bags instead of plastic ones also are part of the green wave of consumption, once they integrate the status of good and desirable everyday practices.

The eco-sense consumer had been present for about three decades, since the emergence of the environmental movement (Tavolaro 2001; Dunlap et al. 2002; Garrard 2006), but there has been more evidence of marketing of these products and practices since the mid-2000s (Paz 2012; Portilho 2005) as a response to contemporary environmental problems. In the wake of antiglobalization movements and anticonsumerism (Klein 2002, 2014; Littler 2008), social distinction strategies also take place because the choice of more environmentally friendly products presents itself strongly as a matter of taste, implying style preferences and access possibilities as a function of income.

Although the onset of the green consumption wave is not very recent, its greater visibility is related to the repercussions of the hypothesis of the anthropogenic cause of climate change, as presented by the United Nations Climate Research Group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Climate Change ( IPCC ). “Anthropogenic” comes from the Greek anthropos, meaning human, and gennan, meaning production or origin (Glacken 1967). It is in this context that notions and social practices such as “conscious consumption” and “environmentally responsible consumption” have established a direct link between the notions “consumer” and “human being,” and between “consumer society” and “humanity.” The IPCC does not carry out research: its conclusions are based on analysis of research carried out by several authors, in excellent research centers (peer review). Each group operates with a distinct thematic focus. According to the IPCC (2007), the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere , taking as a parameter the historical milestone of the Industrial Revolution, is raising the average temperature of the planet.

“In the past, the concept of humanity was referring to an ideal image, distant, always peaceful and harmonious. Today, it refers to a reality rich in conflicts and tensions” stated the Polish sociologist Norbert Elias (1994), emphasizing the extent to which “retrospectively, humans often see only the apparently uniform progress of technique and not the struggles of elimination, which cost lives and those who are behind.” “The affiliation to humanity ,” he says, “continued permanent and inescapable.” However, “our ties with this universal unity” would be loosened so that “the sense of responsibility to humanity in danger is minimal.”

In the debate on global warming, the sign humanity is inflected under the notion of a consuming humanity, which implies the development of a single gesture as a symbol of “responsibility” for the collective. It is up to each human being, understood as a consumer, to do their part and change their consumption habits; this represents a responsibility to humanity and to the planet. The limits of the consumer society would therefore be the limits of that affiliation to humanity: the mediation of consumption gives the possibility of holding their humanity. Changing the consumption habits of humanity, however, because of loosened ties, is not so easy.

For Clifford Geertz (1989), the understanding of themselves as a single species is shaped by culture: A human cannot be defined only by innate abilities (as did the Enlightenment), nor only by behavior (as does much of contemporary social science), but by the link between them. For Geertz, “when viewed as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior , extra-somatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become.” For the author, “to become human is to become individual, and we become individual under the direction of cultural patterns, systems of meanings created historically in terms of which we shape, order, aim, and direct our lives.” Because the involved cultural patterns are not general but specific, global cultural practices such as consumption also need to be included in the individual perspective, although the routines of exchange of goods for money (plastic money) are similar around the world. At the same time, it is the scale of consumption and the environmental problems generated by consumption that are highlighted in current environmental criticism, due to the issue of global warming. It is in this way that the notions of consumer society and humanity, and consumer and individual, are approached. Recently, three global events have helped to make the climate–consumption debate even more visible and bring these notions closer: signing of the Paris Agreement , approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) , and development of the Anthropocene theory.

When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, Ban-ki Moon, then Secretary of the United Nations, said in his speech, “the era of consumption without consequences is over.” With these words, he reiterated the rhetoric of a civilization that, by devouring the natural resources of the planet in terms of consumption as a way of life, is causing extreme environmental consequences that are irreversible and of unprecedented scale. The same idea is present in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), approved in 2015. The Goals were presented as interconnected. Goal 12 directly addresses the sustainable production and consumption agenda, with the climate issue on the horizon. Goals 11 and 13 address the climate, with issues related to, among others, individual consumption. These two documents have boosted consumption issues to the scope of environmental climate governance and, as political acts, will have political consequences in the course of their mandates – such as the recent departure of the USA from the Paris Agreement.

Recent criticism of consumption as a way of life in a global warming context has also led to the proposal of a new geological epoch in the history of the world, the Anthropocene. The term “Anthropocene” was coined by biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and published by Paul Crutzen , Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Crutzen (2002) argues that, over the past three centuries, the effects of humans on the global environment have increased. The hypothesis of anthropogenic cause and the Anthropocene theory alludes to consumption as a human gesture that wears off, withdraws, and subtracts.

In Portuguese, as stated by the Brazilian consumer researcher Lívia Barbosa and the British Colin Campbell (2006), the word for consumption (consumo) derives from Latin consumere, “which means use everything, run out of and destroy”, the same meaning of the English term “consummation”. In Brazil, according to the authors, the meaning of the term “consumption” is closer to the first definition. The authors highlight, however, the ambiguity of the term, which has increased in recent years to the extent that “a new interest in the study of consumption, its meanings and consequences, considering both the exhaustion of the material goods of society and of the environment, as well as the addition, realization and creation of meaning.” The notion of green consumption echoes this ambiguity inscribed in the word consumption.

Conscious consumption” and “environmental responsibility,” among others, are notions that suggest consumption as a gesture of preservation, saving, and replenishment. However, the debate on recent environmental issues denounces the environmental consequences of consumption as an urban lifestyle in which the effects of materiality unfold over generations. If, in the negative perspective, every consumer is responsible for global warming, in the positive perspective the gesture of the consumer is capable of saving the planet. Likewise, the identity of the consumer (the identity of the people) establishes a moral hierarchy among consumers, praising the conscious ones.

In The Consumer Society , Jean Baudrillard (1995) takes a negative approach toward consumption. Aligned with Marxist criticism, the author’s text incorporates the academic reflections of the time on a social phenomenon that arises after war – a consumer society. In this regard, as stated by Santos (2011), Baudrillard, like other French thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, looks at the profusion of objects and the change of focus in the experience of the same. Baudrillard addresses the material dimension of consumption, but discusses this reality in his language. In Baudrillard’s perspective, aided by design and publicity, objects circulate in the society of consumption as signs: “they form a code that subjects a whole society committed to consume and no longer to accumulate, as used to be.” The modern consumer buys so that society can continue to produce (Baudrillard 1995, 2001). However, consumption does not appear in Baudrillard’s view as a “passive relation of appropriation as opposed to a supposedly active production,” as emphasized by Santos (2011). Baudrillard calls attention to the extent to which the logic of consumption goes beyond the objects themselves, “constituting itself as an idealistic practice and not as a material practice.” Thus, the act of consumption always renews itself, because without necessity, without utility and without function, the continuum of consumption resides in its “cultural arbitrariness.”

The green wave of consumption can be elucidated with the contribution of Baudrillard to the extent that it is understood as a consumption that, although presented by its purpose of caring for the natural environment, is more a dynamic within the system of meanings of the consumer society. These are the signs to which green consumption goes back, leading individuals to exchange their money for these products to the detriment of others. Some signs allude to green consumption and legitimize them, like the triangle that indicates recyclable packages , keywords such as organic and biodegradable , and others. Therefore, packaging plays a decisive role in the green wave of consumption: ultimately, it is the signs on the surface of the packaging that are consumed. The metaphor of the consumer society itself, its fundamental notion, gains rhetorical force in the wave of green consumption (Paz 2012). As Slade (2006) says, branding soon became closely associated with packaging as a strategy to create repetitive demand: “manufactuers of foodstuff could not screw a metal nameplate onto their products, but they could advertise their brand by enclosing those products in fancy packaging”. At the same time, packaging is one of the most serious issues raised by the recent environmental debate because of the environmental impact of different materials, such as plastic, that take years, perhaps centuries, to decompose.

Therefore, the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming, as proposed by the IPCC, allows consumption as a lifestyle to be discussed as the material and cultural reality of all human beings. But, as Baudrillard warns, the entire discourse regarding consumption seeks to transform the consumer into the Universal Man, in general incarnation, the ideal and definitive human species, and considers the consumer as the first of the “human liberation.” The consumer, however, says Baudrillard, has nothing universal, but “emerges as a political and social being, a productive force and, as such, raises fundamental historical issues, such as ownership of the means of consumption (and no longer the means of production), economic responsibility (responsibility for the content of production), etc.” (Baudrillard 1995). Consumption is not a universal value system, says the author; it is founded on the satisfaction of individual needs. Reflection on the green wave of consumption implies, therefore, reflection on the role played by consumption in forging identities, values, and contemporary practices. Understanding the centrality of consumption in the current environmental debate involves understanding the centrality of consumption in contemporary life and its role in the configuration of major issues.

Environmentalist Ambience

Marc Augé (1994) emphasized relations as merely contractual in non-places, but field experience in supermarkets in Brasília showed that, in consumer society, these contracts of the supermodernity described by the author can be broken in daily life. Examples of these social dynamics were observed in the supermarket chains visited in the Federal District: Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) in the Pilot Plan, central area and Pra Você (For You), a supermarket chain located in Brazlândia , far from the central area.

The name Pão de Açúcar alludes to a famous landmark in Rio de Janeiro, but the company began in São Paulo in 1929 as a candy store. The name was chosen as a tribute by its Portuguese founder to the landscape that he saw when he arrived in Brazil. The Pão de Açúcar supermarket has stores in several Brazilian cities and is the largest retailer in the country. In Brasília, in one of the stores we visited, located in the South Wing (Asa Sul) neighborhood, the walls show the modernist capital of Brazil (Rio de Janeiro was the previous capital of Brazil). Through this strategy of exposing images of Brasilia, the supermarket store in Asa Sul tries to create bonds with the residents of the region, who tend to be older and with greater income power. Many of the residents are bureaucrats, military people, and retired public servants, as identified by the interviewed manager (Paz 2012). Recently, the Pão de Açucar supermarket chain was sold to the multinational Casino group.

In Brasília, considering its 31 administrative areas, there are about 2.6 million inhabitants and the highest GPD in the country. However, because of the cost of living in the central area, although 47.7% of jobs are offered in the Pilot Plan, only 8% of these people work and live in the Pilot Plan.

Brazlândia, the most remote administrative city (about 59 km from the central area), has a population nearly of 54,000 inhabitants. Because of its natural springs, the city supplies 60% of all the water consumed by the Federal District. There are no Pão de Açucar supermarkets there. At the time of the field study, the supermarket chain Pra Você was the only one available. They had two stores: one in the central region of Brazlândia and the other in its farthest region, the São José district. Due to the rural aspect of Brazlândia, the products were arranged on shelves differently from how they were displayed in Pão de Açucar. Besides offers of individual items, common in all supermarket chains, Pra Você also offered products in “economic large packs.” Thus, consumers living in the rural area could take more units of the same product and avoid returning often to the city.

The supermarket chain Pra Você does not belong to a large multinational group. There are five stores throughout Brasília, most of them located in administrative areas, outside the Pilot Plan. Pão de Açucar stores are mostly located in the Pilot Plan area (Figs. 2 and 3). According to each of the managers interviewed, the average amount spent by each individual consumer per visit to the supermarket was around R$ 30 at Pão de Açucar in South Wing neighborhood. This was half of the average amount identified in Pra Você supermarkets (Paz 2012).
Fig. 2

Supermarket Pão de Açúcar, Pilot Plan, Brasilia, DF, Brazil

Fig. 3

Supermarket Pra Você, Brazlândia City, DF, Brazil

In Brazil, the average ticket price is an indication of the country’s emerging economy, with an affluent consumer society that saw millions of new consumers when 36 million people were lifted out of poverty. Average ticket prices, however, are impacted by the contraction and growth of the economy, as a result of financial and political crises.

The older Brasilia images hanging on the walls of Pão de Açucar in the South Wing neighborhood and the products offered in different packages sizes in the supermarket Pra Você give the supermarkets different ambiances. These two stores present themselves in similar ways (both as supermarket chains, focused on the retail sector) and have the same market goals (the exchange of money for consumer items). The two stores are composed of a system of objects that result in an ambience. However, each ambience goes back to distinct local cultural characteristics – dynamics that escaped the criticism of Marc Augé (1994).

From this perspective, Jean Baudrillard’s notion of ambience (1995) is a more suitable response to qualitative analysis of the cultural dynamics of the supermarket. This concept successfully contemplates both aspects of consumer society: what is transferable and repeated in the different supermarkets (such as the circulation of products with global origin, always the same brands and similar packages) and what happens in a singular way (such as the cultural reference to Brasília in the Pão de Açúcar supermarket). At supermarkets, personal ties are developed in a space that presents itself as impersonal, although impersonality gives the feeling of being always in the same space. To Augé (1994), people always circulate in the same space (the supermarket), wherever its location.

The consumption ambience is what gives meaning to this space that is presented as impersonal. For Jean Baudrillard (1995), it is the notion of ambience that defines the society of consumers and their experiences, like going to supermarkets. The ambience arises from a material–significant circuit that happens within the consumer society, in which is impossible to identify its starting point. Like Augé (1994), Baudrillard (1995) does not emphasize local cultural aspects in his analysis. Despite that, the notion of ambience as a system of signs can help to clarify the different meaning processes that emerge from different ambiences:

All medium modern environments will thus block the level of a system of signs: the ambience, it does not follow more particularly treatment of each of the elements. Neither beauty nor ugliness. (…) In the current system is the level of constraints of abstraction and association that lies the success of a set. Baudrillard (1995)

For Baudrillard (1995), consumption is a system of signs in which the different objects in circulation are equivalent, despite any technological innovation and alleged utilities of products and brands, “no longer relating to a particular object in its specific utility, but to a set of objects.” For the author, consumption loses its symbolic, poetic function of social practice in a consumer society because of the “eternal combination of ‘ambience” (Baudrillard 1995). In line with the historical–materialism criticism, he points out that everyday restrictions and the limited horizons in terms of consumption, always related to signs and not too stuff, lead consumers to the “vertigo of reality” (Baudrillard 1995). The consumption sign works as a “refusal of the real, based on the avid and multiplied apprehension of its signs” (Baudrillard 1995).

The more enclosed the sign, the safer the individual feels, eliminating the emerging tensions of a society where the interdependence with consumption is increasing. In these terms, advertising is a pathway to happiness as myth to be consumed. It is not a coincidence in Baudrillard’s analysis that the Pão de Açúcar slogan is “Place of happy people.”

Following Baudrillard’s notion of ambience, green consumption can also be understood as an ambience. It is realized through a particular dynamic in the system of objects, around the items offered under the label of conscious consumption. Outside the supermarket space, the planet is getting warmer; however, in the supermarket environment, there is no reference to this. The natural environment is represented in shelves and packages, but only through the sign of a nature that is far from being threatened.

Baudrillard (1995) mentions the residual effects of consumption; however, the author deconstructs the idea that the problem is in things that are more and more abundant. He mentions the abundance of objects, but also mentions planned obsolescence as a problem. The term “ planned obsolescence ”was coined in a positive approach by Bernard London (1932), a real-state broker who wrote a paper entitled “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” He proposed encouraging the consumption of new items, instead of using old ones, to overcome the 1929 crisis in the USA.

The critical sense of the expression only gained visibility with the North American cultural critic Vance Packard (2011). His book Waste Makers was first published in the 1960s in the golden era for advertising agencies, in the time of major exhibitions and big news, when products looked really different from each other. Packard criticized two aspects of the consumption euphoria in the American way of life: (1) the short product lifecycle as an internal strategy for production and commercialization; and (2) the consequent accumulation of discarded objects. In some aspects, the success of Packard’s criticism at the time recalls the recent success of the Canadian journalist and economist Naomi Klein (2002, 2014).

In the bestseller No Logo, Klein (2002) deconstructs the image of successful global corporate brands such as Nike and Disney. She argues that people do not consume these brands; they live inside them, because they are announced not as goods, but as spirits. In This Changes Everything, Klein (2014) addresses global warming, defining it as a global debate that evokes a radical change in the capitalism system. The environmental crisis, she says, is capitalism as a systemic crisis, and she attributes an important role to the individual consumption gesture in the face of climate change reality, in objective terms.

For Baudrillard (1995), who has another view, the only objective perspective of consumption and consumers is their realization as myths – as “contemporary society’s word about itself: it is the way our society is spoken.” The only objective reality of consumption, in his view, is the very idea of consumption. Thus, not even the criticism of material consequences can escape from the logic of the system of objects that underlies the consumer society:

Like every great myth worth its salt, the myth of ‘Consumption’ has its discourse and its anti-discourse. In others words, the elated discourse on affluence is everywhere shadowed by a morose, moralizing ‘critical’counter-discourse on the ravages of consumer society and the tragic end to which it inevitably dooms society as a whole. That counter-discourse is to be heard everywhere. Not only is it found in intellectualist discourse, which is always ready to distance itself by its scorn for ‘simple-minded values’ and ‘material satisfactions’, but it is now present within ‘mass culture’ itself: advertising increasingly parodies itself, integrating counter-advertising into its promotional tecnique. France-Soir, Paris-Match, the radio, the TV, and ministerial speechers all contain as an obligatory refrain the lament on this ‘consumer society’, where values, ideals and ideologies are giving away to the pleasures of everyday life. (…)

This endlessly repeated indictment is part of the game: it is the critical mirage, the anti-fable which rounds off the fable – the discourse of consumption and its critical undermining. Only the two sides taken together constitute the myth. We have, therefore, to allot to the ‘critical’ discourse and the moralizing protest their true responsibility for the elaboration of the myth. It is that discourse which locks us definitely into the mythic and prophetic teleology of the ‘Civilization of the Object’. (Baudrillard 1995)

For the author therefore, the environmental consequences of consumption and the criticisms of consumption as a way of life only reiterate the consumption myth . In an interview on the same subject, the English researcher Mike Featherstone (Featherstone apud Paz 2010), a pioneer in the so-called sociology of consumption, said that the green appeal of consumption would also work (although this is not the only way) as an indulgence. Once the products are environmentally friendly and there is a green ambience in certain sections of the supermarket, the consumer could move forward in his gesture of consumption. The green light would work as a concession to advance, an allowance to continue, to buy without guilt – without fear of harming health or the planet . As long as it is “conscious,” the consumer is allowed to be a consumer.

The environmental value and the supposed individual freedom to choose between environmental friendly goods and environmentally harmful goods is also part of the environmental ambience of a supermarket. Consumer green identity was criticized by Raymond Williams (1961). Writer, literary critic, and culture researcher, the famous Welsh author criticized the popularity of the term “consumer” in the 1960s, describing it as a way of representing the ordinary member of modern capitalist society. He criticized the minimization of humans in terms of markets and sales. In the economic fantasy, he warned, choices are made by corporations, but they are addressed as individual choices. This happens especially in advertising, to celebrate circulation of goods as “people’s choices.” He said that, in this controversial atmosphere, unfortunately, great decisions would be made.

Later, Williams (1989) also highlighted the nostalgia that was the effect of the pastoral appeal in the conception of the natural world facing the modern world and its machines: the gaze would turn to the past, so things and life would no longer be or could not be like before. Global climate change is irreversible. The possible effects of today’s conscious consumption cannot have their positive consequences assured in the short or medium terms; even in the long-term perspective, any effect would depend on thousands of consumers’ individual choices. Green consumption, therefore, has no connection to utility – at least in the economic sense of the term. The motivation to be part of the green consumption wave could be entirely cultural. This utility perspective would be created in a cultural order, in the terms in which Marshall Sahlins (2003) proposes. For him, culture is not built in connection with real activities and experiences or objective interests:

All in capitalism conspire to hide the symbolic order of the system, especially those academic theories of praxis in which the world were conceived. Praxis of theory based on pragmatic interests and “objective” conditions is the secondary form of a cultural illusion. (Sahlins 2003)

The appeal of green consumption has gained more visibility in the current environmental debate, mainly around the repercussions of the anthropogenic hypothesis of climate change. Green is brought in response to the planet’s environmental crisis – this is the marketing appeal – , but the imperative of green consumption can also be understood as a cultural expression of consumer society. Consumption as a lifestyle is also a cultural strategy to deal with the different aspects of contemporary life, which may glance on the ecological issue, but are far from being limited by it. The sociological field study in Brasilia suggested that the environmentalist consumption ambience concerns a diversity of cultural aspects.

There was a sector of organic products within the supermarket Pão de Açucar in Brasilia. One of the products marketed in this way was strawberries, sold in a transparent plastic package. Those strawberries were planted, harvested, and marketed by farmers from Brazlândia. The Strawberry Festival takes place annually in Brazlândia to celebrate one of the most important food practices of the region. In Pão de Açucar supermarket, strawberries from Brazlândia were labeled as an environmental friendly product. In the supermarket Pra você, the same item was promoted as the cheapest fruit: R$ 1.49 (US$ 0.45). In the Pão de Açucar, a section was decorated with greenish shelves exclusively for displaying organic products. There, the strawberries that came from Brazlândia were sold as organic strawberries for R$ 1.98 (US$ 0.59). The same item, sold with completely different ambiences and commercial approaches.

In the organic section of Pão de Açucar, a promotional poster hung from the ceiling, asking consumers, “Does living in harmony with nature make you happy?” A soft green color was everywhere on the shelves. Expressions such as “0% pesticides” and “100% healthy” appeared in large letters on the panels that separated organic products from regular products. The organic items were displayed under a large green umbrella. Under this umbrella were products that were friendly to the environment and customer’s health, which implied that all other items in the supermarket were just the opposite. Among the texts splashed on the organic section in the Pão de Açucar, was the following: “Here you can find products without pesticides that respect the environment.” They were saying that those organic products were good for individual health and for the environment at the same time. A good deal: do not hesitate and pay more in order to buy them.

In the Pão de Açucar supermarket, pale green colors were predominant in the organic products section, and they indicated where the more environmentally friendly products were, and the more expensive products: the greener the product, the higher the price – just like the strawberries from Brazlândia. The whole organic sector was colored with soft shades and pastel green tones. “The world of colors is seen as opposed to that of values. ‘Chic’ effaces appearance so that being might stand revealed. Black, white, and grey, the very negation of color, were the paradigm of dignity, control, and morality”, says Baudrillard (2006). For him, the omission of contrasts and the return to the “natural” after the exaltation of red, blue, pink, and other colors in series of items (refrigerators, cars) reveals the modern ambiguity, as the “natural” is not real: it is an (impossible) calling to return to the state of nature.” For the author, this is a color morality.

In the supermarket, the differences between a tomato produced with pesticides and a tomato organically grown are not so clear to the naked eye. Thus, the stamps, packaging, signs, texts to identify the products, labels assuring the origin of the products, and the association of green color with green products make this differentiation, increasing the value of organically grown tomatoes, without reminding the consumer that the other tomatoes are poisoned in some way.

Prices of organic products are higher. Consumers that go to Pão de Açucar tend to have higher incomes than consumers that shop at Pra você. The best products for the best consumers: this is the message that this distinction also suggests. The material perspective of consumption allows to observe how this cultural process works, associating people with some brands or kind of products, such as organics. To the English anthropologist Daniel Miller (2010), the material perspective of consumption must be taken into account in the consumption sociology because for him “objects make people”:

Things, not – note – individual things, but the whole system of things, with the internal order, make us the people we are. (…) But the lesson of material culture is that the more we fail to observe things, the more powerful and determinant they are upon us. This attributes the theory of material culture more importance to things than is expected. Miller (2010)

The supermarket was visited in this perspective too. Around the section of organic products, the supermarket chain Pão de Açucar carries out its environmental marketing. The corporate identity of the Pão de Açucar supermarket is directly linked to the rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility. This is the reason why they offer 750 different items, produced by over 100 farm producers (mainly from São Paulo) that sell their agriculture production directly to the supermarket.

The supermarket ambience is not restricted, however, to the environmental ambience. In both supermarket networks – Pão de Açucar and Pra você – there were different sections alluding to different consumption experiences, feelings, and memories. In both supermarkets, there was a whole section on the theme of black coffee, a very popular drink in Brazil. Also, in both networks, there was a demonstration of ready-ground coffee, offered to consumers as a prize – the smell invading the supermarket. This is also part of the supermarket ambience. In the Pão de Açucar supermarket bakery, bread was in the oven and the smell was in the air. Smells are not prevented; they are used to set up the ambience.However, although every supermarket has the same ambience, there are specific contexts that link every store to a specific consumer local reality.

In the supermarket Pão de Açucar, for instance, the wine section also stands out, occupying an entire shelf with bottles of many sizes and shapes, national and international brands. In the supermarket Pra você there was no organic sector and there was no wine sector. The two sectors built inside the Pra você store under the same ambience logic were the “barbecue corner” and the “ feijoada area” – two very popular foods in Brazil.

In the meat section, the Pão de Açucar supermarket had a unique ambience, highlighting the program “Quality from the beginning.” Meat with this label had a QR code : consumers could discover its meaning using their smartphones. They could access information about the origin of the meat. Animals, landscapes, and people involved in the meat production chain could be seen using the tech source. In the supermarket Pra você, the meats were displayed under the sign “Wednesday Swine,” announcing the weekly sale, but without any advice about the origin of the meat. There was no green consumer appeal in the meat sold in the supermarket Pra você. The green wave of consumption only reached the meat sold in the supermarket Pão de Açucar.

Next to the meat section in the supermarket Pra você, in Brazlândia, there were some eco-bags offered to the consumer. They were produced by a local producer. Each eco-bag cost R$ 8 (US$ 2.30). There was a label on the bag giving the producer’s address and phone number. Although it was produced in the midst of the wave of green consumption, the appeal of the Pra você supermarket eco-bag was for the transportation of meat, especially focused on the consumers who lived in the farthest zone in Brazlândia. In the Pão de Açucar supermarket, there were also returnable bags or eco-bags for sale; however, they were placed close to the cashiers. There was an exclusive cashier for those who used the returnable bags. The price of each bag in Pão de Açucar was R$ 2–3 (US$ 1). The bags showed some flower images; they were made of raffia and were not produced locally but imported from Vietnam (as written on the bag). The returnable bag or eco-bag is one of the most emblematic objects of the green consumption wave. It alludes to the importance given to packaging in the consumer society. The eco-bag is also a package.

On the one hand, packaging appears in the climate change debate because its decomposition affects the natural environment. Excessive packaging, unnecessary packaging, packages with the mere function of promoting corporate marketing are some of the criticisms. On the other hand, the green appeal of consumption needs some special packages to identify and promote an alleged better consumption to better consumers. From this perspective, packages can be understood not only as material objects that impact the natural environment, but also as a concept that defines the consumer society. In this sense, everything in the consumer society is wrapped in packages, whether material and/or symbolic.

Packages and Trajectory

During research at the Pão de Açúcar supermarket in the South Zone of the central district of Brasilia, a lady approached the eco-bag display, close to the cashier, and chose four units, for which she paid. The bags were empty, with no product inside. She was a university professor in the nursing area. When asked why she was buying so many empty returnable bags, she said, “Because they are beautiful. I use them for gifts. I put a flower inside and use the bag as packaging, as if it were a gift paper. Aren’t they beautiful?” (Paz 2012). One of the bags was to present her daughter with a flower and the other bags would be in the car for when she wanted to give someone flowers. At the same store, one of the managers commented that there had been an attempt to sell the well-known and simpler “market bags,” but they “would not sell.” The price was equal to that of the raffia returnable bag, stamped with flowers and imported from Vietnam, but the market bags did not sell. This happened because people did not consider the market bags as beautiful as the others, he explained. The model imported from Vietnam was one of five models available in the supermarket. Some of the bags were produced domestically and the sale of one of these bags provided funds to the Brazilian NGO SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation; however, it was the model from Vietnam, with the visual appeal of the flower design, that sold the most.

These examples from a sociological field study in Brasilia describe another type of utility, not economic, for returnable or eco-bag bags: the value of the object depends on its aesthetics; the appeal is the natural environment. The British ecocritic researcher Greg Garrard (2006) describes this approach as deeply rooted in Western culture and deeply problematic for environmentalism, as it suggests the essential harmony of ideas of nature. This pastoral tradition, which is explored in the literature (especially English literature), is at the base of the modern environmental discourse and alludes both to refuge in the countryside and the idealization of rural life. Such exaggeration is constitutive of pastoral tropos:

Classical pastoral therefore inclined to distort or mystify the social and environmental history at the same time providing a locus, legitimized by tradition, to the feelings of loss and alienation from nature that would be produced by the Industrial Revolution . (Garrard 2006)

The symbolic advertising game is a specific form of marketing discourse and the logic that underlies the consumer society in a broader sense. Its expression is evident in the rhetorical form of presentation – the “packaging” rhetoric of things and consumption of ideas. The lack of correspondence to a particular empirical reality does not prevent the advertising from undertaking poetic–persuasive journeys in which animals talk, cars fly, life concerns are restricted to buying things, and industrial product packaging suggests the “harvested” contents of trees.

The ambience of “things of consumption” is realized through this dynamic – the system of objects that circulate in the society of consumers, objects that include packaging. Packaging not only has the obvious functions of carrying, protecting, and identifying products, but also persuades consumers by suggesting flavors, textures, modes of use of the products, memories, and sensations, although not always related to the content.

Charting a timeline, Pedro Cavalcanti and Carmo Chagas (2006) in The History of Packaging in Brazil even say, “There have been those who pointed out nature itself as the first inventor of packaging, providing the pod to protect the beans and peas, straw to wrap the corn cob, and the shell to protect the egg and the walnut.” Packaging, the authors propose, is to life in society just as prehistoric man is to the consumer.

Plastic is the biggest symbol of the packaging era, but has been the most attacked in terms of environmental criticism of consumption. In response to this criticism, the packaging industry conducted a number of surveys to assess support for the continued use of plastic bags, which have been banned in some Brazilian cities and around the world (e.g., in Paris). In Brasilia, to date, plastic bags are given away by supermarkets. In São Paulo, there was an attempt to ban the bags, but the reaction of the population in general and of the productive sector was not favorable.

Roland Barthes (1985), defined the advent of plastic like the idea of infinity and processing the first substance which if allowed would be mundane, between “Magic” substances, in an allusion to the rare gods’ potions, which would be utensils and dreams of the housewife:

And as an immediate consequence, the age-old function of nature is modified: it is no longer the Idea, the pure Substance to be regained or imitated: an artificial Matter, more bountiful than all the natural deposits, is about to replace her, and to determine the very invention of forms. A luxurious object is still of this earth, it still recalls, albeit in a precious mode, its mineral or animal origin, the natural theme of which it is but one actualization. Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The heirachy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas. Barthes (1985)

Three points need commenting on Barthes (1985): (1) Barthes attributes to the material value luxury the quality of being “very grounded” in the sense of a precious stone. (2) Throughout the article, there is no mention of the scarcity element, finitude – a rarity would have a sense of the sublime, which refers to socio-historical conditions in which “rare” associated with the natural environment did not directly refer to the idea of scarcity of natural resources. (3) The author views utility as a value.

The value of plastic comes from its ability to respond and transform itself into diverse tools. However, his approach overlaps economic utility and utility in the cultural sense, a trend in the debate on consumption that is criticized by authors in different lines of sociological theory, such as Appadurai (1988), Kopytoff (1988), Miller (2010), Braudel (1996), and Sahlins (2003). In view of the criticism that comes from material culture, the value of plastic is in its path that would engender different cultural biographies, not in the expectation of their pragmatic usefulness. The arrival of plastic in Brazil was full of enchantment, close to what Barthes (1985) attributed to Europeans. At the same time, the arrival of plastic was also seen as a negative symbol of so-called Yankee capitalism, according to Pedro Cavalcanti and Carmo Chagas (2006). The authors point out criticism that there was a mismatch between the national plastic industry and the international industry. There was resistance from dairy farmers to the arrival of plastic packaging, the “milk bags,” which coincided with the opening of supermarkets in Brazil in the 1960s. With the arrival of plastic to package milk, manufacturers had to abolish glass containers and equipment for washing, bottling, and transporting in the milk trucks.

Dutch researcher Wiebe E. Bijker (1997) discusses the social construction of bakelite, , the first synthetic plastic, created by Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland in 1907. Bijker states that even in the case of an “individual inventor” it is necessary to consider, for example, the relevance of the social group of designers and the complexity of meanings attributed by consumers to the new material. According to the author, it was not the practicality of plastic that determined its commercial success, but the perception of bakelite as a design object, a beautiful item that could be displayed in the most important rooms in the house and was not necessarily used for some task. The invention therefore was not confronted with strong environmental criticism at the time, as is the case today.

Currently, the environmental criticism of plastic bags emphasizes the long-term and very long-term effects of plastic in the wild. One of the most recent examples/symbols explored in this argument is the “plastic island” discovered off the Californian coast in the 1990s. It is an area in the sea of about 680,000 km2, which is equal to the sum of the territories of the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Espirito Santo in Brazil, and reaches the Hawaiian coast, containing 100 million tons of debris. The oceanographer Charles Moore “discovered” the “sea trash”; since then, the foundation that bears the name of his boat, Algalita, began to be identified as the symbol of a world crusade against the use of plastic. Moore has become an international speaker on the subject:

It is a floating mess of 3.5 million tons of waste, of which 90% are composed of plastic, bottle caps and toys to shoes, lighters, toothbrushes, networks, pacifiers, wrappers, packaging travel and shopping bags from all over the world. (Botsman and Rogers 2010)

The centrality of packaging in the debate that links climate and consumption is notorious, and includes issues such as selective collection, recycling, certification of origin of products, identification of ingredients, the use of returnable bags, and a ban on plastic shopping bags. Every day, millions of individuals make consumer choices by handling objects, suspending belief, or distrusting the information presented, but invariably establish silent dialogues with the things that pile up around them.

In places such as supermarkets, where goods are sold using a logistic strategy of self-service, the default color of product segments, the display, the arrangement of elements, and the performance of employees all appear as packaging. From this perspective, things and gestures are always “packed” in the consumer society, and advertising is a larger package, “system packaging,” as suggested by Maria Arminda Arruda Nascimento (2004).

The appeal of green consumption gives packaging the role of organizing the consumer’s gaze in the face of new offers of environmentally friendly items. The appeal to the natural, the lost paradise, and the suggestion that it can be rescued through consumption opens a very favorable trail for the poetic–persuasive journey of publicity. It is necessary to establish boundaries between environmental marketing and “greenwash” (laundering, deception, green lies). In Brazil, the National Council for Advertising Self-Regulation (Conar), which represents the advertising industry, acted against it, because the advertising itself is addressed regarding its dimensional reality.

In the environmental ambience of the Pão de Açúcar, therefore, in the green world that stands in its supermarket network, the color green has become a market position by identifying the supermarket as an environmentally friendly store. Assigning these terms of significance to the color green is part of the environmental consumer appeal, and releases the green sign to create an ambience or, as Baudrillard suggests (2006), a “systematic culture in terms of objects.” Because of this freedom, which disconnects sign and meaning, there was a strategy of design in Pão de Açúcar that used the packaging of the products to favor the sensation of being, literally, in a green supermarket: the electronic bulbs were arranged along with Heineken beers. The packaging of the lamps was green in terms of its ecological appeal, which is the reduction of energy consumption through technological innovation, but the Heineken beer long-necked bottle, whose visual identity and packaging are green, does not have this appeal; the bottle is green so that it is permeable to light (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Environmentalist ambience: lamps and beer in the Pão de Açúcar supermarket

Garbage, degradation, pollution, and moral decline versus purity, cleanliness, nature, and Eden are issues that refer to the impact of packaging on the natural environment; they are the tropos of the environmentalist rhetoric approach, especially in the media, which tends to confirm the presence of packaging in the natural environment as something evil. According Greg Garrard (2006), “the idea of the natural world, meaning nature in a state untainted by civilization, is the most powerful construct of nature available to the environmentalism of the New World.” However, he warns, this view has “pernicious consequences for our conceptions of nature and ourselves, because it suggests that nature is only authentic when we are entirely absenting from it.” The price of purity of the natural environment would be the elimination of human history. In the way the packaging issue is addressed in the climate change debate, this is one of the aspects cited: Plastic packaging will survive the human odyssey on Earth.

According to market analysis surveys, which are frequently performed in Brazil, it is possible to identify the ways in which the green appeal of consumption is presented by packaging, mainly due to the problems observed in these presentations. In Brazil, spray cans and aerosols emphasize that the product “contains no CFCs,” noting that it is harmless to the ozone layer. Presented in this way on the label, it seems that such absence is a choice of the brand, when, in fact, it is an international decision, in the ambit of environmental and legal governance, based on the country’s own legislation. Indication of the absence of chlorofluorocarbon gas is a marketing appropriation of the ban on 14 September 2000, with the resolution of the National Environmental Council (CONAMA), 267 in view of the Montreal Protocol agreement on substances that deplete the ozone layer.

On the one hand, packaging represents the risk of consumption: look at the packaging, observe, distrust, look for signs that can authorize consumption, buy, use, and discard. There is always the risk of making the wrong decision. The Slovenian researcher Renata Salecl (2005) of Slavoj Žižek philosophical group, defined such a condition as the “tyranny of choice.” The impasse in the face of seemingly mundane decisions such as buying products increases the alleged “variety” of possibilities in the society of consumers. The amount of goods and their velocity impact not only market dynamics but also emotions, the rhythm of life, and the body. Answers to existential questions are required at the same pace as a goods assembly line.

For Richard Sennet (2006), the permanent condition of choice leads to the heart of what he calls the “new economy”: the product’s promise (whether a political candidate or a thing) and the promise of democracy are at play. In his view, the greater the facility offered, the less involvement in making policy. Referring to the Wal-Mart supermarket as a metaphor that can be extended to an election campaign, the author states, “instead of considering the citizen just like an angry voter, we could see it as a policy consumer pressure to buy.” Packaging and its persuasive message play with this individual vulnerability in the face of the things presented. When in doubt, the package itself becomes the purchasing differential, even making it the selling point.

For the Brazilian researcher Fátima Portilho (2005), two shifts have been decisive for the influx of an environmental critique of consumption in the 1990s, probably dating from the critique of industrial society. “Environmental issues begin to be redefined,” she says, “to be identified, especially with the lifestyle and consumption patterns of the affluent societies.” The two discursive displacements that led to this were (1) the critical population growth (mainly in the southern hemisphere), which shifted to the production model of affluent societies (especially in the northern hemisphere); and (2) the change of tone in the concern; the focus changed from environmental problems related to production to environmental problems related to consumption and lifestyles.

Outside the supermarket, however, the cultural trajectory of packaging continues. It is this trajectory, beyond the environmental ambience of things in the supermarket, that the global climate change–consumer debate emphasizes. Arjun Appadurai (2008) proposes “an approach of commodities as things in a certain situation, a situation that may characterize different types of things, in different parts of their social lives.” In the supermarket perspective, the career of merchandise ends at purchase. From the perspective of collectors of recyclable packaging, the social trajectory of the package is just beginning. The Association of Collectors and Recyclers in Brazlândia assign other values to packaging; design elements, labels, and systematic disposition of colors and forms are all irrelevant. From this perspective, it is not the form element that gives value.

In the midst of rubbish , the packaging design presented at the grocery store is barely recognized. Far from the environmentalist ambience, the packaging does not resist the process of discarding and depositing; if they undo, they are dismantled. This does not mean that things cease to be for goods that deviate from the supermarket, but which become goods due to other commercial contexts or other social arenas. In the value schemes, such things would not take a place, even as a commodity (Appadurai 2008).

In the Collectors and Recyclers Association of Brazlândia, what was called the supermarket packaging, label, and design are awarded other names. The financial figures are also different. The names of manufacturers, logos, and consumer tips do not characterize the goods in the context of the Association, for what becomes of value is the material of the package (plastic, aluminum, paper, glass). The dynamics of the supermarket and domestic consumption streamlines around what is on the surface of the package, but collectors and recyclers have another dynamic: the divestment of the packaging becomes important. The packaging in nature, one might say, detached from any promise of consumption, is held as a commodity.

For Appadurai (2008), it is necessary to recognize the commercial potential of all things, instead of seeking in vain for the magical distinction between goods and other things. For the author, it means “break a categorical way with the Marxist view of the commodity, dominated by the prospect of production, and focus throughout history, from production, through exchange – distribution, to consumption.”

In the Association of Collectors and Recyclers in Brazlândia, selective collection takes place every day, from the early morning hours. Cooperative recyclers head to the Association to await the arrival of the garbage truck. There is control of the material that each “picks” and of what is sold for recycling. The truck arrives and the bucket dumps the garbage collected in the city. That moment is called “eviction” by the scavengers. As the garbage is dumped and accumulates at the place for separation of the items, the collectors begin to separate bags, open containers, and check what was discarded by the other end of the production chain. Their only link with these social groups is that they touch the same objects in their different social trajectories. What is not suitable for recycling is intended for landfill. While they work, they talk. Does anyone remember how it was before and how it is different now? Now, the collector’s work is more visible: “Before, people passed through like that,” he said, pressing his nose with his thumb and forefinger. The others laughed. “Now everyone wants to know what we do.” (Paz 2012).

Amid the culled garbage , it is possible to identify some brands and packaging from the Pão de Açúcar supermarket and Pra Você, but with some difficulty. There is an empty plastic container of Ypê biodegradable detergent. A waste picker explained that, for them, that detergent package is called “plot” and the black plastic bag that contained the garbage with the empty detergent package is called “silk;” “black Silk” and “white silk” according to the plastic’s color. The table shown in Fig. 5 shows the date, the type of material collected, the name, and the amount involved in the commercialization of waste (Paz 2012).
Fig. 5

Collectors and Recyclers Association of Brazlândia, DF, Brazil

In the middle of the street, a trash picker scans the asphalt; an orange uniform identifies the picker as contracted by Brazlândia City Hall. Another trash collector approaches and shows the backpack found among the items separated by street dwellers for disposal. The trash collector said he would take the backpack to his daughter who was in school; after all, the backpack was in the trash. “When this collection started [selective collection], Brazlândia was cleaner, but it fell,” one of them said. “I even saw, on the TV, talking about the selective collection in Brazlândia yesterday and I told my husband that I was wrong, because I had no more, only if I was in another city, because really in Brazlândia it was not no,” she commented. Brazlândia was the first city outside the Plano Piloto to institute selective collection, which is still in force; however, the residents’ disregard for the disposal of items made them think that collection was no longer being performed. According to their testimony, people continued to throw a lot of garbage on the streets (Paz 2012):

Women 1: [thinking] – Plastic cup, bottle of water [she shows the bottle that she brings, to replenish water], soda, too many soda cans.

Women 2: [interrupting] They play all, play all, do not care, no.

Women 1: – How they are advertising this collection, I do not know if I got it right or wrong, the trash was to be separated, is not it? It is not. It’s all mixed up.

Women 2: – There where I live, everything is mixed.

The volume of packaging disposal is associated with the consumption of certain items, matching lifestyles and income, usually associated with social groups with greater purchasing power. Although working every day in the collection of items for recycling, gathering what was discarded by others, the garbage pickers do not have this practice:

Women 2: – When I have [trash to recycle] I separate. But I hardly do, because I do not have dry [dry waste, packaging], hardly have. I almost do not separate it, but when I have, together, I separate, yes.


The garbage collector’s comments synthesizes the terms by which green consumption is a marketing appeal that implies lifestyle and taste issues. This does not mean, however, that the ecological problem to which this consumption qualification alludes relates only to the higher income social groups. Brazil is responsible for about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and most of this comes from deforestation (UN Environment Brazil). At the same time, Brazil’s affluent consumer society needs to take into account the ecological impact of their new consumer habits. Consumer chains that start in the forest and in the countryside – producing meat, food from agriculture, and consumer items – cause the majority of emissions that affect different social groups. The effect of global climate change affects everyone. In the context of the consumer society, the ecological debate is more focused on higher income social groups.

On the one hand, arguments for the green appeal of consumption are outside the packaging issues. On the other hand, it is on the surface that green consumption takes place as a promise, affecting individual choices. The package synthesizes the dynamics of presentation, appropriate for a consumer society, but the social trajectory of goods and packages follow different value regimes, as demonstrated. The relationships between people and things that take place after discarding have gained more visibility in the context of the current environmental crisis and need to be elucidated further.

There are arguments and scientific evidence that justify the centrality of consumption in the global warming anthropogenic hypothesis. It puts the notions of human being and consumer closer together, and also the notions of humanity and consumer society. The consumption parameter is, by definition, exclusive, even in the aspects that make all consumers equivalent, such as the experience of going to a supermarket.

The ecological imperative that is placed on the consumer society establishes a relevant debate on consumption as a way of life, and not only around those items that are displayed in the supermarket. Observations from sociological studies do not relate to any particular experience in the consumer society; they are related to a particular city, Brasilia, but suggest the relevance of following the issue of the centrality of consumption in the present environmental debate and in contemporary life by following consumption itself.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Consultant - Communication and International CooperationUniversity of BrasíliaBrasiliaBrazil

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