Do not eat meat. Be a vegan. Recycle. Avoid single-use plastic. Stop fast fashion. The list goes on. As consumers, the concept of living green is marketed to us constantly. Seasoned with a heavy dose of subtle and sometimes not so subtle guilt-tripping. This narrative comes from brands, companies or organisations who claim they are doing their part for the environment and that now it is up to the consumer to do the rest.
Let’s face it can be overwhelming. Lately, many organisations have placed heavier weight and blame for environmental issues on consumers. It is a slick way for them to avoid responsibility and have the masses running around “buying” their way into sustainability. As consumers we must learn to identify this eco-guilt, to correctly research sustainability claims made by companies and to shift our imposed shame into action that holds the major actors of climate change accountable. Let's unpack this.
Consumer blaming and eco-guilt
There is a distinctive point in history when fossil fuel companies decided to shift the blame and responsibility of plastic waste onto consumers. It all starts with the half-truths about recycling. Their ruse is simple: tell people we can recycle all types of plastic so they can continue to make plastic. This is not to say recycling does not work - it does - but it’s not as straightforward as we’re told it is. Although all plastic can be turned into new things, sorting and melting are extremely expensive and just a small amount of plastic is recyclable. The core of the plastic issue is not that we are not recycling enough, it is the sheer rate of overproduction.
This narrative of placing the blame on consumers is a normalised practice across many industries today. In fashion, it’s spun this way: companies can keep producing at the same rate and it's up to the consumer to shop better. Let’s also not forget the argument of demand and supply: it’s easy to assume that companies produce this much because consumers are asking for it, right? Well, in recent years, that has become a bit of a myth. Companies tend to overproduce, way above what consumers are demanding. In the US for example, back in 2018, the fashion industry produced 150 billion garments (an average of 20 items per person that year) and 30% of those garments never sold.
So what does it truly mean for consumers to step into their power to create a shift while holding brands accountable?
Consumer power: demanding allyship and positive action
Why put so much energy into misleading consumers rather than changing for a positive impact?
It is clear how threatening it is to any system when consumers wield knowledge into power. Luckily, thanks to the thriving information age and an increasingly bold generation unafraid of accountability, there are new boundless ways consumers can acquire knowledge on what companies, brands and institutions are doing.
It also gives them the power of choice. The choice to put their money where it has a positive impact on the planet and people. Still, the biggest trick is the carefully crafted illusion that consumers are the ones entirely to blame. This is not at all about removing the weight from consumers; their role is major because their choices do drive company decisions. What stifles them is the false blame, the eco-guilt shamelessly placed on them by these corporations through greenwashed marketing.
As consumers, it is time we throw the eco-guilt aside. Yes, we are also to blame but it must not all lie on us to act. The brands, companies and corporations need to take part in creating real solutions. Instead, there are strategies in place to keep them from lifting their full weight of responsibility. While positive lifestyle changes, including consciously shopping, being vegan and avoiding single-use plastic, do make a difference, we must demand the allyship and transparency of those creating products and marketing them to us. Without this, real change could take longer than necessary.
Demanding this allyship means holding them accountable for their actions, refusing to engage with their false marketing and products when we can, asking them tough questions and and supporting the brands and companies doing the real work. Let’s organise change in our communities and engage with impactful policies through our votes. In due time, they cannot ignore the rallying cry of active citizens making new lifestyle choices because together we are unstoppable.