How Capitalist Elites Outsource Climate Guilt onto Consumers
“I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialization and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin (A Mushroom at the End of the World)
Greenwashing has been a hearty tool for corporate and government elites to deceive the public into fighting climate change as individuals. Capitalism has successfully managed to convert every political and social problem into market terms, and then to convert them into individual problems with market solutions. Contaminated drinking water? Buy bottled water. Poor public education system? Send your kid to a private school for $20k a year.
In other words, capitalism’s emphasis on individualism persuades consumers to inherit the burdens of excessive growth through overconsumption. In a sort of diabolical chain of events, this overconsumption acts as a catalyst for resource depletion, environmental degradation, and internalized guilt amongst individual consumers.
Capitalism’s emphasis on individualism persuades consumers to inherit the burdens of excessive growth through overconsumption.
Capitalism has commodified the planet’s resources while encouraging companies to produce far beyond earth’s limits, and “green” capitalism tries to convince us that economic growth and environmental degradation do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. “Green” capitalism is an ingenious practice of continuing relentless growth while using words like “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” in their marketing. These rhetorical traps have lured consumers into believing they are doing their part in preserving the environment by switching to “green” brands and products.
What makes this marketing technique even more outrageous is that many companies are actually capitalizing on their “greener” products. For instance, “eco-friendly” labelled products cost about 50% more than “non-green” alternatives. Furthermore, companies can often pay for “eco certifications” which they can flaunt on their labels. Some companies have even made-up certifications or regulatory bodies as a form of consumer clickbait. The US Federal Trade Commission and other economic government agencies have turned a blind eye to these deceitful practices for years.
“eco-friendly” labelled products cost about 50% more than “non-green” alternatives.
Other forms of greenwashing include misleading packaging, such as when product labels or advertisements include images of nature or animals to give a more natural appearance. Companies can also greenwash by making irrelevant claims to sound more earth-friendly, like a toothpaste company claiming their products are CFC-free, despite CFCs being banned years ago. In 2018, Starbucks banned all single-use plastic straws and introduced a new straw-less lid in an effort to make the company appear more “green.” Ironically, the new lid contains more plastic than the old lid and straw combined.
Similarly, the marketing departments at vegan leather companies are working tirelessly to boast their role in reducing methane emissions due to their cow-free practices. However, they conveniently fail to mention the negative impacts that the plastics used in vegan leather products have on the environment.
Another example of greenwashing is when Walmart made unsubstantiated claims in a marketing campaign to significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. While this proved to be drastically untrue given only 2% of their energy use came from sustainable methods, Walmart simultaneously donated to political candidates who routinely voted against sustainable developments.
There are many more notable examples of greenwashing that persuade consumers into believing they have a disproportionate role in environmental degradation. The biggest one being British Petroleum’s (BP) fabrication of the “carbon footprint.” BP, the world’s second-largest private oil company, recruited the public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather to “promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of the oil giant, but that of individuals.” In 2004, BP unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” so that unwitting citizens could quantify their personal responsibility for climate change.
This insidious marketing tool not only helps BP deny its exorbitant role in climate change, but it also gaslights (pun intended) consumers into believing they can clear their guilty consciences if they reduce their carbon footprint. BP’s campaign has been so successful because it capitalized off consumers’ desire to have a more hands-on role in protecting the environment. Pragmatically, it is easier for people to conceptualize environmental impacts through the vernacular of their daily routine, such as eating red meat or using a plastic fork at lunch, rather than envisioning large oil conglomerates drilling deep into the earth, extracting carbonaceous fossil fuels refined from ancient, decomposed creatures, only to sell it at petrol stations around the world.
The capitalist system introduced the delusion of consumer-choice that initiates much of the existing social conflicts.
BP’s carbon footprint calculator is perhaps one of the most successful, deceptive marketing campaigns ever. Just a few years after the campaign was launched, the concept was everywhere; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a carbon calculator, the New York Times created a guide on “How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint,” and the term entered everyday environmental discourse. Nevertheless, the concept was challenged when the footprint of a homeless person was calculated; the study concluded that the homeless person had an “unsustainably” high carbon footprint, suggesting that as long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint.
While BP was effectively spreading its pseudo-scientific calculator and framing consumers’ climate impact, they were also managing the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil they spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.
The capitalist system introduced the delusion of consumer-choice that initiates much of the existing social conflicts. Businesses no longer wait until the public asks for their product, and instead fuel consumers’ addictions to new commodities. The cardinal feature of this consumer culture is that people are convinced that endless consumption will eventually lead to happiness. However, this unquenchable thirst for ‘wonderful things’ is a sad attempt for people to counteract their unfulfilling, tedious, and under-compensated labor.
The emphasis on overconsumption in consumer culture makes people feel that they must buy things they do not need to feel a sense of worth and identity. Hence, the creation of fast fashion, ‘Amazon Prime Day,’ Black Friday Shopping, and other forms of planned obsolescence pin consumers against each other in the fight against climate change.
The environmental crisis cannot be solved by merely electing a candidate who pledges to pursue eco-friendly policies.
The environmental crisis cannot be solved by merely electing a candidate who pledges to pursue eco-friendly policies. The tragedy of the commons has proven that natural resources are non-excludable; therefore, given current growth models, the future of capitalism is obsolete. Proponents of economic degrowth have presented numerous alternatives to reckless growth while still considering the long-term effects that a systemic change could have, especially on more vulnerable populations.
While many of these ideas may seem radical given that capitalism has been the bedrock of our economic and political systems for generations, I propose human extinction from environmental catastrophe to be far more radical.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not (necessarily) reflect REVOLVE's editorial stance.