Sustainable, ethical consumption and the environment, a non sequitur

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As an environmentalist living in a consumption-driven society, I often carry the weight of environmental impact on my back as I buy my groceries, restock toiletries, or splurge on clothes. I have spent hours researching the “greenest” alternatives to products and have at times urged my friends and family to make a conscious effort to consume ethically. Conned by capitalism, we as consumers have accepted individual responsibility as opposed to corporate accountability as a solution to saving the planet.

Briefly, ethical and sustainable consumerism is the idea that when you purchase a product, you are also supporting the business model used to provide the good or service. Advocates of this kind of consumption emphasize the power of money in encouraging businesses to adopt more sustainable practices; the philosophy of sustainable consumerism tries to reconcile the conflict between consumption under capitalism and living sustainably. In theory, this might seem like a viable approach to balancing our economy within the Earth’s boundaries in an attempt to address the plethora of environmental issues today. The reality, however, is less optimistic.

As a response to trendy sustainability, more companies are seizing the opportunity to eco-market their products to a financially privileged and guilt-ridden audience of consumers. Journalist George Monbiot explains the dilemma of ethical consumerism in response to environmental crises, writing, “[T]wo parallel markets are developing – one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first. … In the name of environmental consciousness, we have simply created new opportunities for surplus capital.”

This is not so to say that there are not small yet impactful lifestyle changes for reducing  ecological footprints on an individual scale. Eating locally produced, in-season and plant-based diets are generally accepted as mechanisms for reducing the carbon emissions associated with transporting produce across global markets. One study estimates greenhouse gas emissions from a vegan diet to be nearly half of that of meat. And living plastic free is not unheard of — just look at zero-waste blogger Lauren Singer who fit a year’s worth of her trash into a single mason jar.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, in her book “Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet,” puts forth the idea that while buying green can be a good alternative, it is better to buy less altogether. So what does green-washed consumption look like? In U.S. News’s List of “8 Affordable Eco-Friendly Products to Buy,” items like portable washing machines or bamboo paper towels join compost bins and reusable produce bags as some must-haves for reducing your environmental impact.

Looking at environmental issues such as climate change, plastic waste and ecosystem degradation through a lense of consuming less is one step for those who can afford it. However, not everyone can.

While more and more people imperfectly incorporating these changes into daily life can be beneficial in the short run, the expensive and limited nature of these shifts in consumption make them unattainable for many and potentially unsustainable for long-term environmental action. Journalist Martin Lukacs calls attention to the crisis of neoliberalism in the environmental movement: “This is the con-job of neoliberalism: to persuade us to address climate change through our pocket-books, rather than through power and politics.”

Looking at environmental issues such as climate change, plastic waste and ecosystem degradation through a lense of consuming less is one step for those who can afford it. However, not everyone can. Content creators such as Jhánneu Roberts have dedicated their platforms to challenging this exclusionary nature of the environmental movement: “While addressing these issues is crucial to saving the planet, it’s essential to pay attention to the communities that have gotten left behind in the conversation,” Roberts has said.

Epitomizing ethical consumption as the pinnacle of environmental action ignores the already disproportionate impacts. A 2020 report by Oxfam on the inequalities of carbon emissions finds that “the climate crisis has been fuelled and our limited global carbon budget squandered in the service of increasing the consumption of the already affluent, rather than lifting people out of poverty,” citing “poorer and marginalized people already struggling with climate impacts today, and future generations who will inherit a depleted carbon budget and a world accelerating towards climate breakdown,” as the most impacted groups of inadequate climate justice.

With a growing demand for green products and increased focus on individual responsibility to fix the laundry list of environmental problems, we lose sight of perhaps the most effective and equitable yet untapped solution: structural change to address environmental damage. While making the conscious choice to buy sustainably and ethically may absolve some of our personal climate anxiety or relieve us of guilt, the gains from green consumption are futile. A cultural shift towards producer accountability must be at the center of our efforts to create meaningful strides toward saving the planet.

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].