The secret to reducing your environmental footprint: 10 ways to be a bad consumer

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.

Why I don’t avoid palm oil

Aerial view of green palm plantation during sunrise.

I’m going to say something that may surprise you: I don’t avoid palm oil. No, it’s not that I don’t care about orangutans. It’s because it’s not clear to me that this is better for the planet. In fact, I’m afraid it could do more harm.

Research shows that despite the well-known problems associated with palm oil, it’s still the best we’re going to get. It is very efficient, and to switch to alternative oils would use up to 9 times the amount of land, shifting the deforestation and biodiversity loss to other places and to other wildlife, such as bears and jaguars.

My brand of soap makes a big show of the fact it is palm oil-free, but it does contain coconut oil, which is just as bad. Since we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, businesses that promote themselves as palm oil free without first checking the scientific evidence are enormously irresponsible.

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is. It is never just about one ingredient. The way something is produced and transported is also important. And food production can have many impacts – including greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, pollution, soil erosion……..deforestation and biodiversity loss are only two of many issues to consider. And most products that contain palm oil, such as cosmetics and processed foods, have many different ingredients in them. So unless you can be sure that ALL the ingredients and processes involved in an alternative product are more sustainable than the one containing palm oil, it’s hard to be sure that simply switching to something else is going to be better for the environment.

Focussing on specific ingredients is of secondary importance to looking at our patterns of consumption. A glance at many of the products that palm oil is used for – cosmetics, junk food, sweets, biofuels – show that we could live without many of these things (or at least reduce our consumption of them) without a great loss to our wellbeing. And around a third of all food produced goes to waste anyway. If you want to reduce the environmental impacts of consumption, then these are all good places to start.

What about sustainably sourced palm oil? According to the research, it is ‘marginally’ better in terms of preventing deforestation. But even if it was possible to buy Mars Bars made with sustainably sourced palm oil, that would still mean that land and other resources are being used to produce confectionery rather than being left for wildlife, or being utilised to produce more nutritious foods. Consumption of junk foods can be seen as a form of food waste.

That’s not to say that there are no benefits to buying certified palm oil. It’s important to create the demand for sustainably produced food. It is to say that careful sourcing alone, without a change in patterns of consumption, will not fix it.

The beauty products we buy on a whim but never really use costs the planet. The daily meat-and-two-veg habit we always mean to cut down on is contributing to species loss. The slices of pizza we throw away because we couldn’t manage to eat it all, the stale bread we chuck out, the sweet things we give as gifts because we feel obliged to give something but don’t know what else to get……all these are contributing to the destruction of habitats, climate change and water scarcity. And every piece of fast fashion we buy but hardly wear, every unnecessary journey by car or by plane, every new gadget we have to have even though the old one still works, adds to the climate breakdown which threatens all life.

And please, let’s stop giving free advertising to big businesses who don’t take the time to do their research.