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 / theguardian.com

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

4.1 ·
3
What's Next
Trending Today
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 14,972 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 13,453 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Rap News Special Edition: Hillary Clinton Vs Donald Trump
7 min · 10,822 views today · Hello world. RAP NEWS is back for a special episode on the 2016 USA Election mayhem, feat. Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump + a touch of Jill Stein & Gary Johnson. This one's...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 8,056 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 5,912 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 5,591 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 5,394 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
The International Criminal Court May Start Prosecuting People Who Commit Crimes Against the Environment
Tara Smith · 5,163 views today · The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But...
Humanity's Greatest Challenges Aren't Technical, They're Human
8 min · 4,856 views today · Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is incomplete as we commonly know it. Later in his life, Maslow wrote about a stage beyond self-actualization. Nichol Brandford explains how to...
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 4,853 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
The Culture of Maximum Harm
Daniel Quinn · 4,682 views today · People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single...
The Journey From Syria (2016)
71 min · 3,333 views today · Reporter Matthew Cassel spent a year documenting the journey of Syrian jeweler Aboud Shalhoub as he travels from Turkey to Greece, and through Eastern Europe to the Netherlands...
10 Photos That Show the Magnificent Light Shining on Standing Rock
Josue Rivas · 2,258 views today · Despite all the news of pipeline regulation, court appeals, and activist arrests, Native photographer Josue Rivas reminds us that it is actually a peaceful place.
The Left Deserves Better Than Jill Stein
Kate Aronoff · 1,908 views today · Stein’s Green Party run doesn’t offer a plan to win, or to build power. The Left is capable of so much more.
Prince Ea Just Put The School System on Trial and Found it Guilty of Killing Free Thought
6 min · 1,832 views today · Albert Einstien once said "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid". Today Prince...
The Little Engine That Couldn't: How We're Preparing Ourselves and Our Children for Extinction
Daniel Quinn · 1,738 views today · In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world in our poisons. His answer was, "We'd have to...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,205 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Debt, Inequality and the Logic of Financial Violence
David Graeber · 1,159 views today · Five years after Occupy, organizer and anthropologist David Graeber speaks to ROAR about the power of finance, the history of inequality and the legacy of the movement.
This Satirical Trump Vs. Bernie Debate Is Both Hilarious and Highly Disturbing
44 min · 1,127 views today · Comedians James Adomian (Bernie Sanders) and Anthony Atamanuik (Donald Trump) bring two of the most controversial candidates in history, head-to-head, or rather bald-to-toupee...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 1,093 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How Companies Make Us Forget We Need to Consume Less to Stop Climate Change