Public passion for environmental issues is growing, with protests such as the Fridays for Future school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion shutdown of London. After Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent push for her Green New Deal vision, the relationship between capitalism and the climate has found a new place in the public debate surrounding climate change.
In 2015 Naomi Klein, author and social activist who is also behind the Green New Deal, wrote 'forget everything you think you know about global warming. It's not about carbon - it's about capitalism'. Four years on and the capitalist structures that enable environmental damage persevere, with often inadequate government regulation, but there is a glimmer of hope.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s video about the Green New Deal, A Message from the Future, she highlights that many of the damaging effects of fossil fuel use have been known since the 70s. Oil companies such as Exxon have even carried out their own research on their environmental impact, but have not reformed their practices to be more environmentally friendly. In order to continue making money, these companies have instead funded lobby groups and think tanks which cast doubt on the existence of climate change. The bleak reality is, unfortunately, that many of the issues facing our planet can be traced back to the business decisions of massive, self-interested cooperations.
The recent war on single-use plastic, partly accredited to the success of Blue Planet II, also draws attention to this. The cheapness and versatility of plastic packaging made it a lucrative option for manufacturers, while other innovations such as microbeads improved product appeal to consumers. Plastic became widespread, and our disposable consumer culture normalised, with little thought for its consequences.
Yet the relationship between plastic and capitalism goes even deeper than that. When the soft drinks industry first made the change from returnable glass bottles to disposable plastic ones, it was met with some resistance. New York City introduced a plastic bottle tax in 1971, and Hawaii imposed an outright ban on plastic bottles in 1977. However, both of them were overruled by their respective state courts after lawsuits alleging unfair treatment and loss of jobs. Furthermore, the plastic and affiliated industries, much like the oil industry, funded research into recycling and non-profit groups, which placed the burden of plastic waste on the consumer, brandishing slogans such as, 'People start pollution. People can stop it.'
Palm oil, which is also facing major public backlash following Iceland and Greenpeace’s emotive advert showing the deforestation it causes, has a similar past punctuated by profit-driven decisions. A desire for healthier oils and fats in foods, paired with the versatility of palm oil, means it is now present in almost all processed foods: something which can be traced almost entirely back to one decision made by Unilever in 1994.
Its low price, and a consumer demand to move away from animal-based fats, has made it a key ingredient in the cosmetics industry too. It’s clear that the decisions made by brands have long been dictated by how to make the most money, with little-to-no regard for the lasting environmental impacts of their decisions. Meanwhile, consumers are often none the wiser about the ingredients present in products, let alone the damage they have on the world.
The benefits of palm oil shouldn’t be overlooked, however. When sourced sustainably it yields more oil than other crops using the same amount of land and water, and it has had positive impacts on the economies and poverty rates of the developing nations in which it is produced. So the solution is perhaps not a complete eradication of palm oil from products, but, in the absence of better government regulation, companies that use palm oil should take up greater responsibility in overseeing and supporting production to ensure that it is sustainable.
Recent months have shown that the aggressive, profit-driven world of consumer capitalism isn’t as harmful to the planet as it has been in the past. An increase in consumer awareness of how companies are contributing to environmental issues has created a public conversation which is changing the incentives of large companies to be more environmentally friendly. News sources have attributed a 53% decrease in single-use plastics use in the UK and US to a phenomenon they’ve dubbed as ‘The Attenborough Effect’.
Alongside this coffee chains, supermarkets, and food manufacturers have vowed to drastically reduce or eliminate their single-use plastic output. With governments often unwilling to infringe on fruitful industries, and their international nature making regulation even more complicated, consumer power is becoming a vital tool to change companies’ methods for the better.
Nonetheless, the high price and perceived inconvenience of alternatives to plastic means that sustainability has its cost. In 2018, Bristol based coffee chain Boston Tea Party completely banned single use cups, and has since experienced a £250,000 decrease in sales. Passionate about the environment, its owner had anticipated the loss and said, 'it was a financial loss that we had to take'.
For a relatively large chain, these financial hits can be survived, but for smaller businesses already struggling to stay afloat this may not be an option. Moreover, popular, multi-national companies are taking consumer demand for sustainability as a sign that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable options. To achieve long-term sustainability, these companies should be systematically re-evaluating their practices, rather than treating the sustainability movement as a fad that can used to further exploit consumers.
Consumer awareness and changing market incentives won’t be enough, though. Extinction Rebellion and the Green New Deal highlight that time is running out on climate change and we are now in a state of emergency. While seemingly insurmountable corporations like Big Tobacco have been tamed in the past, the process was slow. Aggressive government regulation is needed now to prevent further environmental damage, but in the meantime consumers should utilise their power to influence companies for the better.
For too long the fate of the planet has been carelessly dictated by the business decisions of large companies. In order to save the planet; governments, businesses and consumers need to act.