Over the years, climate change has become a central political issue. More and more people know about climate change, engage with climate change politically, and are fearful of the ecological and societal repercussions of which scientists warn. In response to this fear, many of us want to take action. We ask ourselves: how can I prevent this issue? What actions can I and others take to help reduce the impact of climate change? Some might even Google, “best ways to fight climate change.” A lot of different answers pop up for this search: telecommute to work, bike to work, eat a low carbon diet, purchase green electricity, purchase an electric or hybrid vehicle, fly less, recycle, line-dry your clothes, eat an organic or plant-based diet… the list goes on and on. While the list offers a variety of methods to “save the world,” all of these methods are connected by a similar thread: most of these ideas are focused on the consumption of the individual. More specifically, these ideas are part of a larger environmental discourse which argues that the power held by individuals is the power to choose what and how we consume.
Michael F. Maniates, author of Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, calls this focus on individual consumption and action the “individualization of responsibility,” in which all the blame for effecting environmental change is placed upon individuals. This blame-shifting makes people feel that, through individual action, consumers like themselves can alleviate their environmentally harmful decisions. He argues that environmentalists are lacking the “environmental imagination” that is necessary to make real change. Maniates argues that, for many people, turning off the lights, recycling, or just going vegetarian is a “check-in-the-box” for environmentalists. While those behaviors are great and necessary for a responsible and sustainable future, they create a problem in which many let institutions and corporations do what they want, instead of pushing for the implementation of wide-reaching policy changes. Individuals give power to corporations when, instead of demanding a ban on certain chemicals (which would prevent anyone from buying and using the harmful chemical), they just buy the chemical on their own and let other consumers make a potentially uninformed or budget-based decision. This behavior lets both the market for the product with the harmful chemical and the same product without the harmful chemical persist alongside one another. Expanding one’s political imagination to question institutions or businesses engaged in harmful practices, not just the chemical use itself, is a step that can take us closer to greater sustainability.
A key issue that Maniates identifies in focusing on individual action—like recycling or driving a Prius instead of a diesel truck—is that the focus on individualization actually depoliticizes the issues. A HuffPost article sums it up best:
Instead of feeling guilty about the huge gaps between wealthy and poor, the ways consumerism causes global warming, or how our daily pleasures cause rainforest destruction and despoil the sea, we can drink a few cups of fair-trade coffee, eat a rainforest crunch bar and instantly feel better. The consumer marketplace today offers us every kind of ethical, ecological and healthy option we can imagine, from recycled toilet paper to household wind turbines.
Another aspect of individual environmental consumerism that is important to consider is the social context of environmentally-minded consumer decisions. This article will focus on how green consumerism is used to project heightened social status, and how green decisions become status symbols. Green consumerism is employed by wealthy elites to present an environmentalist public image and bulk up their social status while, in reality, the consumer choices of elites hurt the environmental movement by distancing environmental problems from their political meaning. Likewise, many corporations or institutions present a green image to appeal to customers or other people from whom they can expect some political or economic reward.
One example of institutions engaged in this practice are colleges like Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Colby, who constantly advertise themselves as having already achieved (or on their way to achieving) “carbon neutrality,” without mentioning that they are only doing so through the purchasing of carbon offsets. The way carbon offsets work is that institutions can cancel out their own carbon emissions by paying for projects that reduce emissions elsewhere. These projects, along with allowing individuals and institutions to feel less guilty about and depoliticize their emissions (or achievement of carbon neutrality), could inflict more environmental damage to already marginalized people. For instance, according to the Guardian, “some tree-planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have been accused of disrupting water supplies; evicting thousands of villagers from their land; seizing grazing rights from farmers; cheating local people of promised income; and running plantations where the soil releases more carbon than is absorbed by the trees.” Therefore, it is problematic when colleges use their wealth to present an image of environmental sustainability through the easy, less involved, and less political method of buying carbon offsets, instead of using their wealth and powerful position to implement more solar power or to lobby for green technology locally or nationally. In return, colleges are perceived to have a great environmental record (there is also a competitive aspect to this, as similar colleges like Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby fight over applicants).
Carbon offset use for colleges’ carbon neutrality is just one example of organizations projecting a green status. Many businesses make a profit by simply labeling their product as green, fair-trade, sustainable, natural, organic, or any other label that allows customers to identify that brand as environmentally friendly. However, one third-party study found that 98% of these businesses lacked proof to justify their vague labels and claims of environmental sustainability. So, while businesses are making more money, colleges and businesses are taking advantage of environmentalists’ need to take action while simultaneously misleading them as to the true impact of their decisions.
Businesses that prey upon environmentalists’ fears of climate change or other environmental hazards make a lot of money. In 2017, the world was projected to spend $9.32 billion on green house-cleaning products alone. That’s right: nine billion dollars on house-cleaning products. This not only is an inefficient way to help “save the world,” but it also often supports larger companies. These purchases are, according to Quartz, “well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference.”
However, even though environmentalists often get cheated on prices and products’ actual sustainability, some also receive advantages. For instance, although insulating one’s house might be just as environmentally sustainable as getting solar panels, George Monbiot writes, “I have met people who have bought solar panels and wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts, partly because they love gadgets but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious and how rich they are.” The social prestige of going green is an immense actor against individual action. These purchasing powers are only available for the upper-middle class who can afford such status symbols. Other “gadgets” include battery-run cars, wind turbines, or other obvious, visible forms of wealth and environmental conscience.
However, once again, the focus of “green consumerism” is on the individual and not the system. Instead of actively pushing for climate mitigation and adaptation legislation, those with a Tesla can look down at an impoverished activist who drives a fifteen mile-per-gallon, beat-up van and critique him for his fuel consumption. A vegetarian from Upper East Side Manhattan can accuse someone who dines consistently on cheap, processed beef for eating unsustainably, even if the individual does not have the funds to do so. Yes, it would be great if they could change their consumption patterns, but the financial strains induced by such a change should be considered as well.
Green consumption is a privilege we need to become aware of in the environmental movement. We can not let the dual markets of both environmentally harmful and harmless goods continue. Instead, the most powerful method to take is to push for governmental change—change that will result in one market geared towards forcing environmental consciousness. Instead of limiting green technology to only those with the economic capabilities to do so, we could use government support and subsidies to fund green technology. Moreover, as Maniates would challenge us, if people truly want to make a difference, they must constantly challenge our political imagination and take collective action against large organizations that represent the interests of a few. Let us not forget that soon after April 22nd, 1970, when 20 million activists concerned about human impact on the environment marched down roads, stood on street corners, and made their voices heard around the country, many pieces of legislation followed throughout the early 1970s: The Environmental Policy Act, the ban of DDT, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many other laws. While there is certainly no direct causation from environmental activism, the basic premise that activism and collective action pressures representatives to concede to the demands of their constituents holds true .
In reality, we all live busy lives, and it is easy to just focus on what we can do and when we can do it solely in the form of individual action. Participating in rallies and organizing awareness or fundraising events can be time consuming, resource draining, and very difficult to manage. Ultimately, though, by focusing only on individual actions, we perpetuate the issues and conflicts we care about solving and preventing. And let’s face it, no political challenge can be met by shopping, whether it be for kale, fair-trade bananas, organic almonds, recycled underwear, or behavioral changes like turning off the lights. It is indispensable that individuals learn to constantly scrutinize their own choices, to think big as much as they think small, and to constantly challenge their political imagination. The ideas discussed in this article will serve as a framework for a series of articles that examine specific business strategies, products, and consumer actions around the question of “green consumerism,” as I explore these questions in the context of social status, business appeal, and individual vs. collective action.