How Companies Make Us Forget We Need to Consume Less to Stop Climate Change
We will have to consume less, not more, if we are serious about tackling climate change. So how do businesses like Coca-Cola lure us into forgetting that inconvenient truth?
How Companies Make Us Forget We Need to Consume Less to Stop Climate Change
By Stephen Devlin /

Recycle more, opt for “sustainable” products, offset your flights. In short, do anything, just please don’t stop buying our product.

Companies know that most of us have a basic instinct to protect the environment. Some also know that our doing so could well be a serious threat to their business model. Why? Because a determined attempt to stave off climate change and resource depletion would require radical changes, not only to what we consume, but also – crucially – to how much we consume.

Here are four ways companies frame their marketing messages to make sure we keep buying their products despite our green instincts.

1. The packaging pretence

For the easily convinced, it might be enough to do absolutely nothing other than colour the packaging green and employ environmentally-inspired language. Coca-Cola Life is a case in point: while clearly designed to engage environmental and natural values, nowhere does it claim to actually reduce planetary destruction. The ultimate natural beverage – tap water – isn’t quite so profitable.

2. The not-so-green greener alternative

Statoil, the Norwegian energy company, wants you to think that natural gas will help solve climate change, ignoring the fact that we need to reduce the use of all fossil fuels. The NFU’s Buy British campaign proclaims the superior welfare standards of British meat, but neglects the possibility that we ought to just stop eating so much of it.

Car manufacturers trumpet the improving fuel use per mile, but keep schtum about whether we might need a wholesale transition away from road transport. And easyJet implores you to “Fly greener, fly easyJet”, saying its fleet is newer and more energy-efficient, while disregarding the need to drastically reduce flight volumes.

In many cases, governments are complicit in this messaging, championing incremental changes as long as they don’t encroach on our perceived right to consume as much as we like.

3. The feel-good factor

Recycling is the ultimate act of environmental absolution. When you ask people what they are personally doing to tackle climate change, the most common response is: “I recycle”.

And yet, in environmental terms it is infinitely preferable to prevent waste altogether, rather than recycle it. Recycling alone is not going to do much to prevent disastrous climate change, but it makes people feel good and doesn’t threaten core corporate interests.

Sometimes the attempt to co-opt sustainability frames is shameless: think back to Topshop’s blatant rebranding of a popular slogan: ‘Reshop. Reuse. Recycle.’ Or Shell’s ludicrous 2007 claim to recycle CO2 into flowers. Others are more subtle, like Jigsaw’s current For Life Not Landfill campaign, which instructs you to “invest” in your wardrobe, but offers no serious advice on why buying more clothes from Jigsaw might reduce the number of garments in landfill sites.

4. There is no alternative

If all else fails, just tell your customers that they have no choice but to buy your product. Seriously unsustainable industries that can’t hide their dirty practices are the most likely offenders here.

For example, fossil fuel companies are fond of reminding us that demand for their product will keep increasing, and the food industry tells us we will need 100% more food by 2050. This framing sidelines the question of whether we should be trying to constrain that demand and implicitly tells you that since everyone else is going to be doing it, you might as well join the party.

The exception that proves the rule?

The outdoor equipment company Patagonia famously urged its customers not to buy their products if they didn’t need them in their Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign. Corporate framing is so deliberately devoid of anti-consumption messages that when one does crop up it feels completely jarring and causes a media splash.

A cynic might argue that Patagonia is, in fact, the supreme master of greenwash here, but, whatever Patagonia’s aims, the campaign raised an interesting question: can retail brands ever be the ones to encourage truly sustainable practices?

Next steps

The current framing of climate change doesn’t generally accept that there are some things we simply need to do less or consume fewer of. The story pushed by businesses and governments is that we need to fit the problem of climate change into the continuation of our normal lives and simply make better choices at the checkout.

In this narrative, the biggest change you might have to make is to buy British lamb chops, not ones from New Zealand, exchange your gas-guzzling car for a Prius and, above all, remember to do your recycling.

Ultimately, we can’t expect businesses to advocate constraining consumption. But we must recognise the way they exploit our environmental instincts in their marketing. It’s time we start questioning whether to buy, not just what to buy.

Stephen Devlin is a natural resource and environmental economist at the New Economics Foundation

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How Companies Make Us Forget We Need to Consume Less to Stop Climate Change