Last autumn the media fell over themselves to give free advertising to a supermarket who claimed to be boycotting palm oil in its own brand products. The supermarket was praised as a ‘shining example’ for helping the planet.
But earlier in the year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released the findings of an in-depth study into palm oil concluding that boycotting it is not the answer, as switching to alternatives could increase the loss of species and wildlife habitats. But where were the shares on social media? Where was the praise for all those hours of careful research? Why are we doing PR for supermarkets instead of supporting the work of bodies who exist to protect wildlife?
Over the last year there has been a palpable shift in awareness as more and more people begin to consider the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Clearly, this is a positive development. It’s just that with that comes the growth of the ‘sustainable lifestyle’ industry. Promotions in my newsfeed this week invited me to purchase ‘conscious’ skincare, ‘ethical’ scent diffusers, and a ‘climate-friendly’ bra. No wonder politicians are doing so little about the planetary emergency – people who care about the environment are too busy shopping to make any noise about it.
What is it that connects all of this? The answer is that it shows how effectively we have been trained to be good consumers. I’ve already argued that the planet will not be saved by ‘conscious’ consumerism. The mess that we are in is down to overconsumption of resources, and we are not going to solve this with more of what caused it.
Even as I write this, I know that this post will attract comments springing to the defence of big business: ‘at least they’re trying…….small steps…….’ We really have learnt to be good and loyal consumers, and we need to learn to be bad ones.
So, here is how to be a bad consumer:
- instead of following stores and brands on social media, follow people who are passionate, inspiring and knowledgeable about the environment.
- have a healthy scepticism towards the claims of advertising, especially those of large corporations whose entire business models are about selling more and more stuff. Remember that marketing people will use artful tactics to appeal to green-minded shoppers.
- be wary of any sustainable lifestyle advice which is little more than a shopping list of new things to buy.
- if you are organising a sustainability event, instead of filling it with people who are looking to promote their businesses, find contributors who are qualified to talk about sustainability and can offer good ideas and solutions.
- instead of sharing posts celebrating corporations who’ve made small and/or ineffective changes, share things that offer inspiration from real humans or useful information from reliable sources.
- have more faith in your own resourcefulness. You are easily capable of getting what you need and finding your own fun without consuming ever more resources.
- choose your heroes with care. Save your praise for anyone out there doing the work of protecting the environment, not businesses who are looking to profit from trends without making any substantive change.
- Notice how advertising encourages us to link our sense of happiness and wellbeing to consumption, especially of things that are damaging to human health and the environment like sugary foods, flights and cars. Then ignore that message and find your own pleasures.
- stay alert to more subtle forms of consumerism, such as small businesses flogging ‘eco-friendly’ stuff you didn’t know you needed, or beautiful but pricey ‘sustainable’ lifestyles on Instagram and Pinterest.
- Put your wallet away and do something you enjoy.