Why Eco-Consumerism won’t Save the World

Why eco-consumerism won't save the world

In the midst of all the downbeat headlines at the moment, here’s some encouraging news. The world is growing more and more aware of the problems caused by excessive waste and over-consumption. The media is full of eco-related headlines, some progressive, some less so, but it’s becoming more and more obvious: interest in our environment is growing.

With that at the forefront of so many minds, everyone is thinking the same thing: “What can I do? How can I make an impact?”, which in itself is an amazing development. So many of us are choosing plastic-free, environmentally-friendly, or organic options in all different areas of our life: from food to cleaning to cosmetics. But while making better choices and ‘voting with your wallet’ definitely has an impact, ‘eco-consumerism’ brings along its own set of problems when it comes to making a sustainable and wide-reaching change. Being a blogger, I’m all too aware that I highlight and showcase a lot of products, albeit more eco-friendly ones than most. I don’t want to stop doing this, as I do feel that the businesses who make these products deserve a platform, and that we can all benefit from sharing small changes that make our lifestyles more sustainable.

But the more articles I read on greenwashing, the more targeted ads for eco-friendly products appear on my screen, the more I think about the premium price tag we’re being asked to pay to receive something in a glass jar rather than a plastic one, the more I’ve been wanting to write this post. By now, we’ve all heard that there are only 12 years to prevent a substantial change in climate. If we’re honest with ourselves, bringing our own coffee cups and water bottles is not going to cut it. And while many of us are motivated to make whatever changes we need to, there’s an argument that the bulk of responsibility should not lie with individual consumers at all.

eco-consumerism - why it isn't enough

As with anything, raising and talking about things is the best thing to start. Today, I want to share the main reasons I don’t believe that eco-consumerism can save the world, and why I think the conversation about climate, waste, and the environment needs to go much further than an individual’s shopping choices.

Eco-consumerism is an individualist approach

At the moment, neither our infrastructure nor our education around eco-friendly living are quite what I would describe as cutting-edge. We place a lot of responsibility on the individual, both in terms of educating ourselves and in practice. For instance, recycling requirements vary from town to town, they’re not always clear, and, if you don’t have access to a car, a large number of recyclable materials end up in landfill simply because you aren’t able to drive them to the tip. From a consumer perspective, we’re being expected to educate ourselves about which products and packaging materials are better than others (which is often more complex than it seems at first glance), and then to source and purchase items that align with our findings. Whether or not anyone does this is completely up to the individual, and by putting all the responsibility on consumers rather than producers, we’re minimising the impact of eco-friendly products and packaging as they’re simply not accessible enough. We need more education and a better recycling infrastructure to grow our communities’ understanding of eco-friendly living. But we also need eco-consumerism to be less of an individual effort, and more of an easy-to-attain way of shopping. Which leads me to…

We need more accountability where it matters

We’ve established that most of the responsibility currently lies with the individual, but who should be shouldering some of that instead? I believe that A LOT of this should sit with large retailers – supermarkets, clothing chains, you know the ones I’m talking about it. It is not acceptable that we try to make an effort to reduce our plastic consumption while supermarkets happily plastic-wrap individual bulbs of garlic. It is not okay that fruit and vegetables that quite literally grow in their own biodegradable packaging are put in plastic bags simply because retailers want to have an easy way of differentiating between organic and non-organic produce. It recently came out that supermarkets alone are adding more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging to the waste stream in the UK. We need them to be more innovative. Stop making excuses. Do better. Be accountable.

Eco-consumerism prices people out

This is a big one. I’ve been listening to Wardrobe Crisis for a few months now, which is a podcast about sustainability in fashion. One of the guests on it, V&A curator Edwina Ehrman, noted how sustainable fashion was becoming the ‘new status symbol’, and how much of a problem that is. Sustainable and green items (clothing or otherwise) are in demand, they’re promotable, they make you feel like you’ve done the right thing. They’re popular, and the economy therefore dictates that you can demand a luxury price for an item simply because it was produced ethically. That’s a huge issue – it implies that only those with significant purchasing power are able to a) make a difference and b) live according to their ethics. We have to change the conversation to get to a point where producing goods in a way that doesn’t harm anyone or hurt the planet becomes the norm, not a luxury. For that, we need far more than eco-consumerism; we need international governmental co-opertion.

Eco-consumerism encourages greenwashing

Since eco-friendly products are in demand, companies are scrambling to clean up their act. But some of them may be relying on clever marketing rather than making any actual changes to their production strategy. By putting a green PR-spin on their products, they can appear to be doing far more than they actually are, and trick consumers into believing they are buying a better, more ethical option. Again, this concept thrives on the knowledge that more and more people are becoming aware of environmental threats, and are willing to pay a premium for less destructive options.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that we cannot shop our way out of climate change. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be making the best choices we can with the means we have available. I’m absolutely not trying to discourage anyone from being conscious about the things they buy, and how they can shop in a way that is more ethical and produces less waste. Those are small steps we can all take, and I’ll continue to try my best, and hope that others do, too. But it is unfair to demand that consumers make all the changes, and producers make none. Instead, we need more legislation, more accountability, and more incentives for companies to produce and market their wares in ethical, sustainable, and honest ways.

So, what CAN we do?

Well, there are a few things.

  • Firstly, keep making the best choices you can within your individual circumstances. It does make a difference, particularly if you switch to a plant-based diet, as this BBC tool demonstrates
  • Secondly, get talking. The more we discuss the issues around eco-consumerism, responsibility, and sustainability, the more awareness and interest we can raise. You might even be surprised at how many people share your perspective, and really want to talk about ways to make a long-term difference
  • Thirdly and finally, get active. Is there a relevant group at your work you can join? Awesome. Are there any local campaigns you can get behind? Also excellent. You can also get in touch with your councillors about specific issues of concern, such as limited recycling facilities – I believe that local politics is a really important element of the sustainability conversation that is often overlooked

Any and all involvement is valuable to demonstrate to companies and politicians alike that sustainability is important, and so much more than a fashionable bandwagon to jump on. If you have any more examples or ideas for ways to get actively involved, please do let me know in the comments, and I’ll add them to the post!

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  1. January 18, 2019 / 12:48 pm

    There was a great VOX video about why it is so hard to live an eco friendly life. It was talking mostly about the USA and it’s policies, but it was very enlightening. Taking eco friendly steps I think CAN be helpful for companies. For example on small chain called MOM’s Organics has a nice little area where you can take recyclables that aren’t recyclable by the government. Since I want to recycle the squishee pouches, snack bar wrappers, batteries, whatever, I feel a little more inclined to buy something there. It is a small step but proof going green can be better for companies.

    • hannahcolquhoun
      January 19, 2019 / 8:18 pm

      Ooh I might have to go and look for that video! It’s true for the UK, too, though – so many materials are recyclable but councils don’t actually accept them. And yes, absolutely – I’d also favour going to a shop where I can bring my recycling, that’s a really good concept!