I walk into Peet’s Coffee, the all-important coffee shop that slaps me awake every morning. As I stroll up to the desk to order my usual medium cappuccino with an extra shot, a new set of posters on the wall catches my eye. “Social Responsibility,” the centerfold reads, “People & Planet.” The earth-loving ho I am, of course, got extremely excited. So I sent in my order, sat down at a table and began to look into Peet’s Coffee’s impressive, new environmental initiative.
Recently, a whole slew of companies have decided to try their hands at environmentalism. It’s the hot new social concern (literally heh) with voters and consumers worldwide. There are a million ways to start making earth-friendly choices, and local businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike are advertising their environmental takes. Starbucks and many other coffee shops sell reusable tumblers that customers can use to receive 10 cents off of their order. Metal or reusable straws are sold in almost every hip boba store and at Target. Shoe brands, such as Nike and Vans, have begun to accept old rubber soles or make their shoes from recycled materials.
And these are all good efforts. I am all for reducing waste in any way possible and offering consumers benefits for making those green choices. But, companies are also making these environmental switches to, of course, turn a higher profit.
Corporations will partner with well-known environmental nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to get reputable organizations to green stamp their products. The partnerships that World Wildlife Fund has with The Coca-Cola Co., The Nature Conservancy has with The Boeing Company and Conservation International has with Starbucks Corp. result in increased funding for the NGOs, eco-certification and good, green publicity. Environmental consumerism is a market strategy. In reality, these companies need to be doing more than simply aligning themselves with a big name in environmentalism: They should try to become environmentalists themselves.
Let’s take a look at one industry, fashion, to evaluate the effectiveness of a green business plan. Brands, such as Reformation, Everlane and Patagonia, have gained name-brand recognition by selling their tilts on environmentally-friendly fashions. They are famous for using more sustainable raw materials, recycling products and altering their supply chains to decrease their carbon footprints.
Sure, they’re not perfect. But they are miles ahead in environmental quality in comparison to companies peddling fast fashion. Forever 21, H&M, Topshop — these businesses make their clothes cheaply, quickly and rush to follow trends. Their clothes are often made of synthetic materials, such as polyester and spandex, that take hundreds of years to break down. They attract hundreds of thousands of shoppers worldwide because of their famously low prices, which unfortunately contributes to an enormously wasteful cycle. New trends pop up all the time, and fast fashion encourages consumers to buy, wear for maybe a year until it’s no longer the hottest new thing, then toss out their garments and buy again — new.
But these green clothing businesses use natural or recycled fibers that are not subject to microfiber shedding. They use organic cotton, are transparent about their business practices and are actually knowledgeable about the climate crisis. Moreover, their websites have information regarding the negative impacts of fast fashion, which overall just underscores that their quality products are built to last.
And this strategy of environmental sustainability has helped these companies in the long run. Making good environmental choices, such as sourcing from local producers or investing in energy-saving machinery and equipment, often results in a financial payoff. Increased efficiency does in fact save money, as producers are able to trim unnecessary costs and help the planet at the same time. The idea that a business can make environmentally-friendly choices while also generating good profit is a relatively new one, surging in popularity only in the last decade. Walmart, for instance, cut its carbon emissions by 20 million metric tons from 2010-15, both reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and its production costs in the process.
I look at companies like Nike, like Target, like Peet’s when I hear they are introducing some new green initiative, and I ask myself, “How green can they be?” For hundreds of years, the business model in the U.S. has been to churn out as much product as fast as possible for as little cost as possible. The wasteful fast fashion model can be seen as a byproduct of this mindset. This level of capitalistic productivity hurts the environment. And you can’t use capitalism to fix capitalist problems.
OK, I’ll admit, I’m being a little fatalistic. But there is no perfect model for sustainability. Even if these companies have environmentalist workers, their overall production lines are never going to be entirely carbon neutral. The market in the U.S. demands that everything from their coffee to their clothes be cheap and easy, and environmentalism is not easy.
Clothing from Reformation, Everlane and Patagonia is really quite expensive. My prom dress cost about $75. A casual dress from Reformation costs about $200. To the average consumer, this is absolutely ridiculous, even if the product is beautifully crafted and environmentally-friendly. I personally don’t own anything from any of these brands, as much as I would love to.
Honestly, even small moves are good as long as they’re environmentally positive. While we should be doing so much more, if we’re being realistic, these companies are not going to be making expensive, large-scale shifts in their policies in order to help the planet unless they have good reason to. And the only way to kick them into action is via legislation or shifting public opinion.
For the record, the Peet’s sustainability initiative seems to check out. It has been changing its supply chains, selecting specific producers and showing that it cares about both the planet and the communities its products come from. But, for now, it unfortunately remains an outlier in the American corporate ethos.
In essence, this is the issue with environmental consumerism. Right now, sustainability is the new black. It is the buzzword of our era of consumerism because buying something green makes consumers feel as though they are doing something meaningful. There are brands that simply say they’re trying to help the environment by making small changes in exchange for good public relations and increased sales, while only limitedly supporting the planet. On the other hand, brands that truly are in it for Mother Earth are too costly to become widely popular.
So what are we to do?
Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].