Who Can Stop the Climate Crisis: the Corporation or the Consumer?
Article by Rebecca Storey
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
We are in the midst of a climate emergency. Global temperatures are rising, the last four years were the four hottest on record, glaciers are melting causing sea levels to rise, food and water security are threatened, the frequency and severity of natural disasters are increasing and international peace and security will soon be stretched to its limits as countries compete for resources.
The climate crisis is evidently an issue which affects all of us, it is in everyone’s interest that the effects of global warming are haltered and reversed. Human activity since the industrial revolution has led to this crisis we are facing today, so it is, therefore, our responsibility to stop it. However, the Anthropocene (the epoch defined by human activity affecting the planet) was not created equally. A report released in 2017 shows that just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the previous two decades. The richest 10% of people consume around 20 times more energy than the poorest 10%. This leads to the question, who is responsible and therefore has the ability to stop the climate crisis: the corporation or the consumer?
The responsibility of stopping climate change is often marketed as being down to the individual consumer. One report says that consumers are responsible for 60-70% of all direct and indirect emissions. However the impact individuals have varies dramatically based on the level of income, 21% of households represent 61% of total global income, the consumption habits of low-income compared to high-income households will be very different and have different levels of impact on the environment. It is therefore important that high-income consumers (predominantly people living in the global west) make conscious choices regarding how they spend their money. For example, fast fashion is commonly overconsumed in high-income countries, the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions and yet there is so much wastage involved with three out of five fast fashion items ending up in a landfill. For people who can afford to spend a little extra money on ethically made, sustainable clothing, which ultimately is of higher quality and lasts longer, or perhaps purchasing second-hand clothes and recycling garments this is a very effective way for individual consumers to reduce their effect on the climate.
However, there is only so much of an impact individual consumers can make with their choices of shopping more sustainably. The theory of the treadmill of production argues that the main driver of climate change is and has always been the relentless desire from corporations to continuously increase production and aim for economic growth. The degradation of the environment comes directly from the exploitation and misuse of resources, which ultimately is done by the large corporations who produce just about everything we buy and not the individual consumers. Consumer lifestyle responses are often insufficient for dealing with the severity of the problem. For example, consumers have been led to believe that not using plastic straws is a fundamental step toward eliminating plastic pollution, yet plastic straws make up far less than 1% of the plastic waste that enters the oceans each year. The ban on plastic straws is a very small-scale move, blown out of proportion by governments and the media to suggest that consumer choice makes all the difference while distracting from the lack of real intervention and reform from those in power. There is constant greenwashing by the corporations to make people believe they care about climate change and its impact on the environment, and yet not enough real action is being taken on their part. The fact that 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions remains the same.
Ultimately we desperately need fundamental changes to every aspect of society, from the ways in which we use our land, grow our food, produce and transport our goods, and power our homes. Collectively individuals can make conscious choices to limit their impact on the environment, such as reducing meat and dairy consumption, cutting back on travelling by plane or car, using ethical banks, reducing energy use and cutting consumption and waste. However, without corporations and those in power taking responsibility for their part in the climate crisis and taking real actions against climate change, the COP26 goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees alive seems futile.