Islam has always been a lifestyle of ethical choices, but how is a new blend of halal and green consumption practices to contribute to debates on sustainable development?
Green as the new chic
Green lifestyles and fair-trade purchases have become increasingly popular among the well-to-do worldwide. In an edited volume, later this year to be published by Bloomsbury, my co-editor Rivke Jaffe and I try to unpack the notion of what we call ‘eco chic’; an amalgam of lifestyle politics, environmentalism, spirituality, beauty, and health, and which is often combined with a return to simple and slow living. Mass mediation of the eco-chic concept has been instrumental in adding to its worldwide fashionability, with nowadays a multitude of films, coffee table books and glossies advertising anything from organic cosmetics, health spas, to green cuisine. Eco chic increasingly has become a part of the identity kit of the upper classes, offering an attractive way to combine taste and style with care for personal wellness and the environment. As green products and lifestyles are increasingly appropriated by new wealthy classes, not only in the global North but also in many emerging economies in the South, an understanding of the cultural variety of eco chic promises to be the next challenge for social scientists.
Back to Islam
Environment-friendly halal resorts, eco hijabs, Imams preaching to protect wildlife -- these are but a few examples illustrating the sudden interest in green consumption among Muslim hipsters worldwide. However, environmental awareness is nothing new in the Islamic world. Of old, Islamic teachings have always urged mankind to be good to the environment and conserve their habitat, a philosophy firmly captured in the notion of khalifa or stewardship. Creation is entrusted to man, who is to take care of it temporarily. It is such ideas which in more modern times have been taken up in development and conservation programs with a clear Islamic signature. A renewed interest of Muslim interest in environmental care is also reflected in an upsurge of eco-minded blogs, such as the Eco Muslim. Some years ago, UK-based lifestyle magazine Emel somewhat provocatively even called for an ‘eco jihad’. These blogs not only emphasize Islam’s long tradition in this field but also call for a trendy approach to such matters that addresses a young Muslim audience but that in many aspects is mirrored after eco chic as we know it.
Malaysia, an emergent economy
Not surprisingly, most of the above initiatives are run from societies in which Muslims happen to be a minority, but in which green and eco is indeed the latest fashion. But the odds are vastly changing, with green aesthetics now travelling worldwide and majority Muslim countries similarly joining the campaign. Malaysia offers a case in point. For the past years the country has not only fared well economically, it has also advertised itself as top destination for Muslim travellers offering halal food, Muslim day spas and Islamic theme parks. The ethical lifestyle offered by a huge halal food industry is now rapidly merging with an interest in organic and healthy food, to be consumed by Muslim tourists and the nation’s orthodox middle class alike. Near Singapore, a new eco-friendly smart city, Iskandar Malaysia, is being built that is projected to accommodate three million environmentally aware Malay citizens. It is such massive projects which take Islamic environmentalism to a next level. In addressing the consumer needs of emergent middle classes in other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Turkey or Egypt, environmental awareness is similarly boosted well beyond the agenda of Muslim activists, philosophers or philanthropists.
A cultural turn in the study of ethical consumption
Much of what we now label ‘morally good’ consumption may well be part of a typical Judeo-Christian legacy which is significant but hardly questioned in many of the consumer societies studied so far. What about Islamic environmentalism, Green Daoism or, for that matter, other religious repertoires that feed into the ever emergent eco chic?
As green consumption goes global, its new advocates resort to a revalorization of local, often ‘indigenous’ tastes and traditions that ironically seem to predate exactly that global era that enabled green consumption to travel in the first place. Finding fertile ground among Muslim audiences in the global South, long cherished but hitherto little practised ideas of stewardship and fair distribution thus find appeal among a new generation. Eco Islam hence becomes an obvious lifestyle choice for many young Muslims, a lifestyle combining shariah compliancy with care for the planet.
Read more about this research project in the forthcoming publication Green Consumption, the Global Rise of Eco-Chic, edited by Bart Barendregt and Rivke Jaffe. Bloomsbury: London (2013).