The con of consumerism. Does going green really help?

by | May 21, 2019 | Climate change and sustainable development, Corporate power | 0 comments

(Photograph by Jonatan Svensson Glad on flickr)

Post By Olivia Adamson

2.5 billion coffee cups are wasted every year, according to The Guardian 2018. Therefore it’s no surprise that this ecological monstrosity has led to the boom of eco-friendly products. It has even become trendy, where products such as reusable travel mugs, water bottles and tote bags are being taken under the wing of many companies who want to show their bid for a more green way of living. However, is this yet another market that is masking the detrimental effect that modern capitalist society has had in contributing to climate change?

The industrial development in the long 19th century catalysed progression that had never been seen before. Mass transportation increased the amount people could commute into cities, urbanisation catered to the growing population, and development in science and technology catapulted us into a new modern age. Despite this, the evolution of industrial and capitalist systems gave way to processes that would fundamentally change society: commercialisation, commodification and consumerism. In conjunction with population growth, these processes have inevitably flourished in recent years resulting in a mass dependency on them.

71 per cent of Americans consider the environment when they shop, according to Cone Communications. Therefore it is clear that this eco-friendly, attractive consumer sentiment is something which capitalism can exploit. Even people who are not educated on what we can do to help sustain the environment if a product is plastered with an ‘eco-friendly’ label, people are likely to feel an obligation to buy this against alternatives. This shows how the power of marketing can often be superior over peoples own knowledge on what it means to be environmentally friendly. This view of capitalism raises the question of whether we passively accept this situation and the power of wealthy companies or have the authority to lessen our dependency on consumerism.

The ‘Treadmill Model’ of production approach to the relationship between the environment and capitalism argues that even though there is an element of accepting or rejecting the consumer agenda, the decisions are largely out of our hands. This model was first proposed in 1980 by Alan Schnaiberg at a time when sociological contributions to the environment and climate change were on the rise. Schnaiberg emphasises the social aspects of the relationship and says that we have to understand the operations of capitalism from a macro perspective in order to simultaneously understand the consumer effect on climate change. The trendy nature of eco-friendly products such as reusable coffee cups suggests that companies are producing products like this in order to meet demand. However, the treadmill argument contradicts this, arguing that consumption patterns are largely shaped by production. It also highlights the little lifestyle changes we make don’t make a difference in the grand scale of the climate change crises; it is part of the solution, but it isn’t THE solution. The solution in the eyes of this model is a macro restructuring and reorganisation of capitalism and institutions of society to unite for combatting climate change; it is not solutions that marketing tells us we are responsible for.

So how does the treadmill model relate to reusable coffee cups? It all links back to the deception by which we believe that we’re buying into contributions to saving the environment, but the agenda of who is selling the product is not always clear. It is important to note here, that there are many environmentally savvy companies that have sustaining the planet as their one and only focus. For example, many companies and charities are not profit driven and donate much of the money raised to environmental causes. This is unlike many shops we see on the high street or online who are not primarily environmentally friendly in their ethos, and therefore could be considered ignorant and exploitative to the cause.

With all this taken into account, is the answer to the capitalist exploitation of environmentally trends to therefore not buy anything associated with this? No. There is no denying that the efforts people are making now are greater than before, but there is still a very long way to go in saving the planet. It’s too late to reverse what has been done, but every little count from this point forward. What needs to change is the awareness of capitalist markets and industries masking their contribution to the climate change cause for their own good. Truth is, people are going to have to dig a lot deeper than simply just buying reusable products.


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