Green consumerism is not enough

Still from Iceland's anti-palm oil animation, featuring a girl and an orangutan
Backlash against the decision to ban Iceland's orangutan advert over-emphasises the power of green consumerism.


Every once in a while a new eye-catching catastrophe grabs the public consciousness and we the sense that environmentalism is going viral. 

This article wasfirst published on EcoHustler.

Unexpected online friends share an emotional video from a seemingly well-meaning company. For a second you believe that this might be the turning point. Then, the interest wanes and disaster becomes the everyday once again.

This time it is the turn of supermarket middleweight Iceland to wade into the spotlight with their banned Christmas advert highlighting the destruction wreaked by palm oil farming.

Breaching rules

The short film, originally created by Greenpeace, tells the story of a baby orangutan driven out of its rainforest home by deforestation. It was deemed to be in breach of political advertising rules. 

Politicians and commentators were quick to leap into outraged defence of the supermarket, which is also the first in the UK to drop the controversial ingredient from all their own-brand products. 

A petition for the advert to be released has already reached over half a million signatures.

The environmental impact of palm oil farming can never be understated. However, cynical minds cannot help but question how much the decision is led by environmental concern, and how much by the growing trend for 'green' lifestyles.

Although the entry of environmentalism into the public consciousness is to be applauded, it seems to be increasingly predicated on individual purchasing power.

Purchasing power

Rather than demanding change from the 100 companies that cause 71 percent of global emissions, the general public is told that they must change their own buying habits to save the planet.

This mentality is shown in the current WWF advert in which an explosion of plastic products flies at the viewer, as a voiceover claims that we can “win the biggest battles in the smallest moments” by considering “the food we eat, the things we buy and the way we live”.

While individual actions such as recycling and conscious purchasing will have some impact, they are always severely limited.

Take recycling as a well known example. Although recycling rates in the UK have shown great improvements over the last couple of decades - raising from an abysmal 11.2 percent in 2000 to 43.7 percent - in recent years the improvement rates have plateaued.

There has been no significant rise in the last five years, making it doubtful that we will reach the national target of 50 percent before it's too late.

Consumer aspirations

An emphasis on individual action has cemented the rise of green consumerism - the pitfalls of which have already been outlined - but this trend seems to have reached new heights: 'green choices' are sold back to us, often in ways that lack environmental credibility.

Reusable plastic bottles and tote bags have become the go-to giveaway products, creating cupboards full of supposedly eco-alternatives which actually consume far more energy in their production than their single-use counterparts.

The larger companies that create these increasingly ubiquitous products have to drive new models and designs so that they can encourage consumers to keep coming back.

As with any social movement, environmental slogans are printed onto t-shirts, bags or anything else ready to be flogged to the public. In short, environmentalism is being sold as a consumer aspiration which in the end only encourages us to buy more rather than cutting our waste production.

Iceland has made significant steps to brand themselves as the environmental choice. Picking them over Tesco becomes like choosing Ecover instead of Persil.

Shifting impacts

Green capitalists will argue that by consumers purchasing these brands over their less sustainable counterparts the necessary environmental shift will be set in motion. But this growth in choice only serves to hold back the real changes we need.

Instead of moving towards local and independent shops and services we continue to rely on the national, or even global giants whose size will always guarantee a level of environmental destruction. 

Minds can slowly be changed. Perhaps Iceland’s first steps will encourage the global brands that they still stock to join them and stop using palm oils. But any progress will be slow and each similar battle will have to be won on its own.

The process will be nowhere near quick enough for the level of change we need to see, and in a financial system based firmly on growth it may never happen. This is the fundamental issue: capitalism is an unsustainable system.

If we move away from using palm oil the environmental impact will simply be shifted. Rather than decimating Indonesian forests with oil palms, deforestation will move to other areas of the world inhabited by endangered species, as we begin to rely on crops which demand more land than palm.

New path 

The global demand, and producers' methods to meet it, cannot be sustainably managed under the current system.

We can rebrand capitalism in hundreds of 'green' guises but it will always be led by individuals who value growth in profits over protection of natural resources.

Initiatives such as Iceland’s palm oil advert are more likely to increase their profits rather than significantly reverse the precarious position the world finds itself in. It may even do more damage by sedimenting beliefs that dramatic and systematic changes are not needed.

We must stop just reshuffling the deck and choose a new path to reverse our fate.

This Author

Liz Lee Reynolds is a freelance writer focussing on place and the environment. She tweets @LizzieeLR. 

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