Fans of Planet Earth have a lot to be worried about lately. The news on the environment has been grim: global carbon dioxide concentrations are rising at a record pace, average global temperatures have broken records for three consecutive years, and warm ocean temperatures in 2016 decimated large swaths of ecologically precious coral reefs. Meanwhile, President Trump appears bent on undoing any progress made in the United States toward addressing the challenges of climate change, announcing plans to ease automobile fuel efficiency standards, undo key provisions of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, and dramatically slash the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and scientific research related to climate change.
The Trump administration's assaults on environmental policy have left many wondering what they can do to combat this disturbing trend. Most suggested actions emphasize civic activism: writing one's elected officials, attending protests and rallies, donating to environmental organizations, and even running for office. All are essential ways for concerned citizens to become involved in defending our home planet. But the conversation about environmental activism has largely ignored one of the most important factors driving the resistance to progressive environmental policies – American consumerism and the influence of major corporations.
Whether we care to think about it or not, every purchase makes a statement. Too often that statement is “I don't care who gets my money.” But we should care. Many of the companies we routinely hand our hard-earned dollars over to are the same ones who have polluted our air and water, exposed us to dangerous chemicals, and poured billions of dollars into lobbying against environmental protections. They are also the same companies who have created the false narrative that economic prosperity and environmental conservation are mutually exclusive goals. And while we may vehemently disagree with these company's actions, most of us, knowingly or not, continue to support them, often with the assumption that we have no other choice.
The good news is we do have choices. More and more companies, big and small, are recognizing that their continued existence depends on embracing sustainable practices; moreover, the wonders of technology offer a host of new ways to for consumers to learn about a company's environmental practices and to discover alternatives to polluting conglomerates.
The Argument for Ethical Consumerism
As an individual, it's easy to feel like your actions don't matter. But en masse, consumers have tremendous power to drive trends of which products are available and how those goods are produced. For evidence of this phenomenon, one need look no further than the recent explosion of organic products on the market. Over the last 15 years, organic products have gone from being a little-known niche market to one of the fastest growing, increasingly mainstream sectors in American Agriculture. According to a 2016 press release issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of certified organic operations in the United States has increased by almost 300% since the agency began keeping records in 2002 with most years seeing double-digit growth in the organics sector. Significantly, growth in demand for organic products continued throughout the economic recession, suggesting that more and more shoppers are convinced that the health and environmental benefits associated with organic products outweigh the higher cost.
Similar growth has been observed in demand for “eco-friendly” or “green” products, particularly among millennials. Citing a 2015 Nielsen study, Michael Hozik of the Georgetown Environmental Law Review states, “Just over the span of one year, millennials willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive environmental and social change increased from 55% in 2014 to 72% in 2015.” In response to increased demand, the number of applications for eco-friendly labels doubled between 2006 and 2007 and the selection of eco-friendly products made available by retailers increased by 73% from 2009 to 2010. Household names like Walmart, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, Sony, and many more have created ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pledged to increase the sustainability of their supply chains. It's possible that these steps are born from a genuine desire to do what's best for the planet, but more likely big name brands are increasingly recognizing the necessity of wooing the growing number of eco-conscious shoppers.
The “ethical consumer” approach is not without its skeptics. In a 2009 blog post, The Guardian's George Monbiot argued that small, individual actions rarely make a meaningful impact, and that by subscribing to ethical consumerism, shoppers feel more justified in excusing themselves from taking more substantial actions. Says Monbiot, “Our power comes from acting as citizens – demanding political change – not acting as consumers.” Annie Leonard, former Greenpeace activist and author of the book The Story of Stuff echoed Monbiot's sentiments in a 2010 interview, saying “If you're going to vote with your dollar that's fine. But you need to remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. We need to [...] change the balance of power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of the planet dominate, instead of those who are just looking out for the bottom line.”
These statements fail to acknowledge a fundamental reality that has undercut environmental advocacy for decades: the ability of corporations to buy political influence has consistently overridden the preferences of American voters. Many of these companies have fought tooth and nail against common-sense, publicly favored environmental policies, often with remarkable success. And the reason Exxon Mobile and other equally reprehensible companies have so many dollars with which to vote is that every year they are patronized by millions and millions of consumers like you and me. Publicly denouncing and withdrawing financial support from the worst environmental offenders while supporting companies with an eye toward a better future is a critical element to the shift in power Leonard calls for.
To be fair, neither Leonard nor Monbiot are suggesting that people shouldn't make every effort to ensure their purchases inflict minimal harm to the environment – they're simply pointing out that in order to effect ongoing change citizens need to do more than reevaluate their purchases. Both authors also express concern that small consumer actions are taking the place of potentially more effective political actions. Says Leonard, “It's increasingly looking like buying green delays people engaging with the political process.” There's research to support this: a recent study published by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that while nearly a third of survey respondents reported engaging in some type of consumer-based climate action in 2016 – either supporting companies striving to reduce their environmental impact or punishing environmental offenders – only about eight percent reported contacting an elected official regarding climate change policies.
So yes: to effectively advocate for the environment, Americans need to do more than simply tweak their buying habits. Everyone concerned about the future of our planet should be contacting their elected officials to make their priorities known. But just as conscientious consumerism is not a substitute for civic engagement, political activism does not excuse the role we all play in enabling toxic corporations.
Everyone, regardless of how politically engaged, is a consumer. And as consumers, we can send a powerful message that a company's continued profitability is inexorably linked to its respect for the health of its customers and the planet they live on. In an era which promises to be hostile to government regulations (or at least those which favor a greener, more just future), our dollars must do the work our legislators will not. When the Trump administration promises a rollback of environmental standards, consumers must send the message that our own environmental standards are higher than ever.
Resources for Voting With Your Dollars
Picking which companies to support and which to avoid can be tricky. Corporations are often masters at misrepresenting their efforts via corporate greenwashing tactics, and seemingly ethical brands may be owned by sinister parent companies. Companies may be strong in some areas of environmental sustainability but weak in others, forcing consumers to pick their battles. Finally, there's the unavoidable fact that all business operations incur some type of environmental impact, no matter how sincerely a company may attempt to mitigate it.
Luckily, there are a number of tools available that can help consumers make eco-conscious decisions. The following resources provide guidance on where mainstream brands fall on issues related to the environment:
· Buycott – Available for Android and iOS, this app allows users to join campaigns that reflect their values and scan the barcodes on everyday goods to find information on where the product’s parent company stands on those issues. Companies may be “supported” or “avoided” by various campaigns, helping consumers find alternatives to brands deemed unethical. Perhaps most importantly, Buycott allows consumers to easily view a product's “family tree,” thereby preventing parent corporations from hiding behind seemingly benign brands.
· Science Based Targets – This collaboration between the CDP, United Nations Global Compact, World Wildlife Fund, and the World Research Institute provides a list of companies who have committed to ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary for preventing global warming from reaching the critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold.
The above tools offer important insights for guiding your purchases when you have to buy something on the fly – your grocery shopping, your runs to the drug store, etc. Purchases that allow for a little advanced notice, however, afford greater opportunities for shoppers to find alternatives to major corporations. For products ranging from clothing to personal care to food and household items, not to mention a wide variety of services, these tools help you identify companies who are setting the gold standard for corporate responsibility:
· My personal favorite, the DoneGood browser extension for Chrome provides an easy way for shoppers to find products produced by mission-driven companies whose ethos include environmental sustainability, quality craftsmanship, and employee empowerment; it even automatically includes discount codes! Simply search for an item on Google or Amazon and, where applicable, DoneGood will show you some inspiring companies that make it.
· Online directories like the National Green Pages and B Corporations allow consumers to find businesses in a wide range of industries that have been recognized as leaders in social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
· The Environmental Working Group, the organization famous for its annual “Dirty Dozen” guide to pesticides in produce, offers numerous consumer guides that rank products ranging from cleaning supplies to cosmetics according to their impact on human health.
One additional way consumers can promote environmental sustainability is to support renewable energy. Utilities in many states offer options for supporting renewable energy generation, usually at a cost that is only marginally greater than standard utility costs. Essentially, these plans guarantee that some or all of the power used in a customer's home or business each month will be matched by energy generated from renewable sources. These plans operate within the standard power grid and do not require any type of rewiring or special equipment. Green Mountain Energy, Arcadia Power, and Clearview Energy are a few examples of clean energy providers that offer plans in multiple states. Sadly, state-by-state info on the availability of green power options was recently scrubbed from the U. S. Department of Energy's website, so to learn about options near you, you'll need to check the availability of services from the aforementioned providers or see whether your local utility company offers similar plans. Where available, these services provide consumers an easy, relatively inexpensive way to drive demand for renewable energy.
Make Your Voice Heard
One particularly interesting finding revealed by the aforementioned study by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication was that, contrary to most consumer expectations, companies are far more likely to respond to negative PR than to a decline in revenues. The takeaway? Just as concerned citizens are encouraged to reach out to their elected officials, eco-conscious consumers should speak up and make their priorities known to the companies vying for their dollars.
Consumers can advocate for sustainable practices in a number of ways. First, they can register their concerns with companies directly via mail, email, phone calls, and even through the Buycott app. Messages might range from asking a company to end or modify a specific harmful practice to promising to boycott a company unless they establish a comprehensive plan to address the environmental impact of their operations. Consumers can also promote sustainability-minded brands in their communities by speaking with managers at local retailers and asking them to carry more eco-friendly brands.
Finally, never underestimate the power of public shaming. According to the George Mason study, “spreading information about objectionable corporate practices is a more powerful method of influencing companies than simply purchasing more climate-friendly products.” Boycotting a particularly egregious company? Tell the world. Tweet it. Instagram it. Create a hashtag. Encourage your friends to join you. Form a coalition of vocal consumers who refuse to be complicit in environmental destruction.
Mindfully allocating our dollars to companies who do the most good – or the least harm – can be a powerful tool that empowers the average person to regulate the behaviors of giant corporations when our government fails (or refuses) to do so. But ultimately, what we buy and who we buy from is only part of the sustainability equation; addressing how we consume is another critical component to reversing the decades-long trend of carelessly exploiting the natural world.
In Part II, I'll explore the ways in which the average person can distance himself from today's economy of throwaway goods and live and shop in a way that generates less waste and puts less strain on the earth's resources.
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