It’s no question that a green consumer is a trendy consumer. From the metal straw craze to the emergence of entirely sustainable clothing lines, there has been a surge in popularity among eco-friendly alternatives to everyday products. This shift would seem like good news for the environmentally-conscious consumer, able now more than ever to make all the right choices for their planet. However, why is it that the majority of American consumers have believed in the climate crisis for decades, and yet, 100 companies make up 71 percent of carbon emissions without going out of business? After all, we are all rational individuals operating in a market of free choice, so did we really choose to be… here?
In the context of the eco-conscious consumer, people have devoted extensive time to make responsible choices about what to buy. From adopting vegan lifestyles to restricting wardrobe to ethically sourced materials, it would seem the right choices are available for most people to make. It then becomes easy to assign blame and even become frustrated with those who “aren’t doing their part” to combat the devastating effects of air pollution, plastic waste, deforestation. I, however, believe this entire framework of individual responsibility is not conducive to solving any of these issues and is that way by design.
The first question we have to ask is: who can afford the right choices? There are many ways that households can reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of material waste they create. But how realistic is it, for example, for the 39 million Americans living at or below the poverty line to do this currently? Not only can sustainable purchases require money that many families don’t have, but consistently obtaining all the information necessary to make informed decisions about what to buy demands time that most have to spend making sure their families are getting by.
Another limitation is the consumer’s ability to effectively dismantle existing markets which are propped up by government subsidization and policy. Is it solely up to consumers to, for example, out-buy the fossil fuel industry? In 2016, the federal government put over $14 billion in subsidies toward fossil fuel industries to make their practices more profitable. Additionally, as reported by Oil Change International, permanent tax breaks to the U.S. fossil fuel industry are more than seven times larger than those for renewable energy sources.
I don’t mean to argue that limiting your choices to eco-friendly products when possible is completely invaluable to the long term goals of environmentalism. However, situating green consumption at the center of environmental activism is going to be detrimental. It is effectively sending out the message: If you aren’t being conscious about your purchases, you are the problem. All of this rhetoric is meant to shift the focus away from the actual institutions that maintain unsustainable business practices through corporate lobbying and misinformation and towards the individual. Even green companies who may harbor noble intent and take on charitable projects knowingly manufacture guilt about your proximity to the state of the world to sell their products as the quick fix. It is not in the best interest of most companies to internalize the negative externalities of wastefulness and pollution unless it is more profitable to do so.
In this way and others, the goals of environmentalism and market incentives are incongruent. The purpose of a firm is to increase capital, but all creation of capital requires the extraction of value from both natural resources and labor. So should we center our focus on leveraging individual purchasing power in hopes that somehow we can simply boycott away long-standing, well-funded industries? Will the money be solely led by consumer choice to a cleaner net-zero carbon emission future?
The uncertainty of this is enough to convince me that this is the wrong approach. Instead of allowing corporate interests to segment our activism into the consumer behaviors of individual actors, we must shift focus to the power of collective action to leverage structural change. For college students like myself, this means voting in local elections, calling your legislatures, and organizing direct action. We can’t get so lost in our personal responsibilities that we ignore the systemic changes that must take place. So long as we allow this, our own altruism will be sold to us for the profit of a select few.