The Perils of Corporate Environmentalism

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Environmentalism has finally done it — it’s become one of the cool activist movements. Scientists are no longer yelling “climate change” to an unresponsive void of disinterest, but to a sea of eager potential environmentalists, ready to buy boxed water and sign a change.org petition. It is much harder to empathize with a tree or an ozone layer than with a suffering human, so climate change’s transformation from being the lame, hypothetical issue that 10th graders are forced to learn about for a week in science, to Leonardo DiCaprio’s cause of choice, is an impressive feat and a reason for excitement. Now that environmentalism is where every activist movement wants to be — on the tote bags and t-shirts of progressive 20-year-olds.  It has the potential to fix the damage humans have done to our planet.

Tree huggers aren’t the only ones who have picked up on this surge of urgency to save the Earth. Many companies are feeling the heat — whether due to the changing customer values or the changing climate — to join in the fight. Cosmetic companies are going toxin-free, food packaging is increasingly recyclable, and vegan restaurants are rampant on big-city streets. Everyone knows the companies are not attempting to reduce their carbon footprints out of the goodness of their cold, corporate hearts, but as aware as we are of LUSH’s true intentions, we keep returning for those recyclable bottles of shower gel and all-natural face masks, because at least these green brands are doing good deeds in order to obtain our business.

Tree huggers aren’t the only ones who have picked up on this surge of urgency to save the Earth. Many companies are feeling the heat — whether due to the changing customer values or the changing climate — to join in the fight.

However, herein lies the eminent danger to the future of the environmental movement. When companies use environmentalism as a marketing strategy, as a buzzword to base their look off of, environmentalism undergoes a dangerous transformation from a revolutionary movement to a trendy aesthetic. When reduced to a matter of style preference, the fight for the environment becomes nothing more than an inclination for dish soaps with ducklings on the bottle instead of a call for the upheaval of our fossil fuel dependant society.

Although dish soap with ducklings on it is not inherently bad, it dampens the agency of would-be environmental activists. It is possible that these green products may encourage people who would have otherwise done nothing to do something; but it also makes those who would have otherwise done something radical to do the bare minimum, satisfying their environmental quota for the day by making an eco friendly purchase and moving on without another thought. When environmentalism is a trend, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of believing that since you are living the green lifestyle. Activism is more than green purchases: it is making donations to charitable organizations, participating in protests, and making long-lasting lifestyle changes. Putting your money where your mouth is important, but it cannot replace making tangible change.

The demotion from active to passive environmentalism is detrimental to the movement because it incentivizes greenwashing, a popular method of deception among seemingly eco-friendly brands. Companies will rebrand their products with green, flower-adorned labels that utter empty promises of natural ingredients and sustainability in order to catch the interest of consumers without making any significant changes behind the scenes. H&M’s Bring It On campaign, for instance, was marketed as “closing the loop” by recycling old and unwanted clothes so they can “get a new life” as new clothes. However, less that 1% of the clothing collected actually gets made into new clothes, and only 0.7% of H&M’s own clothes are made of recycled materials. By creating Bring It On, H&M relieved themselves of environmental guilt and softened themselves in the eyes of consumers without making any impactful changes to the way they run their business.

The demotion from active to passive environmentalism is detrimental to the movement because it incentivizes greenwashing, a popular method of deception among seemingly eco-friendly brands. Companies will rebrand their products with green, flower-adorned labels that utter empty promises of natural ingredients and sustainability in order to catch the interest of consumers without making any significant changes behind the scenes.

The Bring It On campaign not only misleads consumers and improves H&M’s reputation at minimal cost, it also encourages consumerism. While people stop by H&M to recycle their old jeans, they might as well buy a new pair while they are there. Instead of recycling old clothing — an ineffective practice — environmentalists should put in the effort to reduce consumption by sewing up holes, removing stains, and giving items that don’t fit to friends, family, and clothing drives. Bring It On encourages customers to skip these waste-reducing steps and replace their clothes as soon as they are damaged. Since H&M products aren’t exactly known for their durability, this cycle of purchasing, discarding, and purchasing again creates massive amounts of waste.

When companies cash in on the implications behind the colour green, they are not only manipulating consumers to choose their product over another, but are encouraging the consumerist culture which is a key player in getting us into this environmental predicament in the first place. Aspiring environmentalists who may have otherwise made an effort to reduce waste by buying less will instead continue to purchase the same amount, simply from more “eco-friendly” brands. Most products, including eco-friendly ones, take a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to produce and transport, and even recycling requires mass energy consumption. The most conscientious choice is to consume less, but that solution is not profitable for big businesses, so no matter how many eco-certifications they are given, corporations will never be able to adopt efficient environmentalism.

All of this is not solely to discourage the purchase of eco-friendly products. There are brands that, despite their money-grabbing tendencies, are far ahead of their peers in terms of sustainability and should be supported above brands that refuse to help whatsoever. But be wary of environmentalism’s role in the marketplace. If the battle against global warming is to be fought with all-natural hand cream and paper straws alone, we are going to lose. Environmentalism needs to be an activist movement. It needs to rile people up and put pressure on companies to change their production methods instead of giving them an exciting new marketing angle, but the corporate world will always prioritize money over morality. That is why it is up to us to ditch trendy environmentalism and revitalize its agency by consuming less, wasting less, and resisting the temptations to participate in a passive green consumerism that is restricted to shopping cart contents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.