On capitalism and consumer guilt



Ah capitalism, the destructive force of modern times. In the midst of our climate crisis, capitalism seems incessant on passing the buck over to consumers. It is us who must switch to shampoo bars, invest in reusable coffee flasks or buy [insert all plastic-free alternatives here]. Admittedly I'm the perfect target for sustainable marketing but I’m honestly so fed up of being made to feel that climate change is my fault.


Capitalism will forever be at odds with sustainability. It is a system driven solely by profit at any cost. So, if profit means outsourcing cheap materials, rampant labour exploitation and mass climate destruction, then so be it. In a 1987 report, the United Nations defined sustainability as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. But capitalism suffers from short-sightedness, concerned with only the here and now. It punishes long-term responsibility, values competition over cooperation and holds vast political say. This has made it virtually impossible to co-ordinate industry-wide change.


So how has capitalism adapted, even survived, in an age of widespread climate change awareness? In a genius move, capitalism has responded to increasing demand for sustainable alternatives by providing just that. This has effectively misdiagnosed consumerism as the source of the problem. A quick Google search will tell you everything you need to know: we need to take more public transport, buy organic produce and shun fast fashion. In other words, it is individual consumers who are responsible for addressing climate change.


Capitalism then transforms our panic into convenient products to alleviate any personal guilt: 'Feeling anxious about your future? Worried about your own environmental footprint? Why not treat yourself to a metal straw'. Capitalism has essentially tricked us into buying more things to live an eco-friendlier lifestyle. I myself have succumbed to the pressure, throwing away my perfectly good plastic toothbrush just to purchase a bamboo one. What I didn't realise at the time was that sustainability is all about cherishing what you already own.


Well not according to capitalism! Let’s just break that down for a second: capitalism wrongfully and wilfully blames consumers to deflect from its own complicity while encouraging us to buy more needless products to fuel capitalism’s very survival. It makes me feel a bit sick that such a system is manipulating and incentivising even the most conscious of consumers into buying products that could harm the environment.


Nothing irks me more than being bombarded with plastic-free period advertisements. I'm fully aware that tampons, pads and panty liners (packaging and all) account for more than 200,000 tons of waste each year but the impetus on young girls is frustrating, especially when period poverty persists. In the UK, 1 in 10 girls aged between 14 and 21 are unable to afford sanitary products, while 49% have missed an entire day of school because of their period. This is understood in the context of the tampon tax: sanitary products are deemed 'luxury, non-essential items', subject to a 5% tax, while men's razors are questionably untaxed goods.


It seems almost unfeminist to guilt-trip young, vulnerable women for something beyond their control. Until moon cups and reusable sanitary pads become cheaper than already expensive plastic tampons, efforts should be channelled elsewhere. While you definitely save money in the long-term with these products, the larger upfront cost is a huge barrier to some. And when scientists are finding dangerous chemicals in the crotch of Thinx menstrual underwear, it's not the perfect solution after all.


While this war on plastic is not entirely misplaced, the blame most definitely is. It’s the system we need to change, not just the products of that system. Capitalism has disguised its business as usual approach by offering a proposed solution which can be purchased. These plastic-free alternatives are diverting our much-needed attention away from more pressing issues like carbon emissions, rising global temperatures and deforestation.


This also raises the issue of accessibility. I am super privileged to have the time and money to think about what I'm consuming but I understand that the sustainable lifestyle capitalism is capitalising on is not currently attainable for all. Take veganism for example. There was a time where veganism was the exclusive domain of the rich white woman. In just a few years, supermarkets have created dedicated vegan sections and food chains are constantly debuting new plant-based menus. It's now easier (and cheaper) than ever to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet.


The sustainability movement, however, still has a long way to go. We are constantly being told just how bad flying is while rail prices continue to soar. In something of a paradox, capitalism offers the illusion of choice while ensuring that less sustainable lifestyles are more affordable (and then makes you feel bad about it so you splurge on more plastic-free swaps). After all, consumers can only act within their means and it is capitalism that dictates consumer choices.


In fact, a 2017 study found that an individual’s environmental impact is best predicted by their income level. It determined that people with higher salaries usually 'hold more positive levels of environmental self-identity'. But even among those who behave in an 'ecologically responsible way', the study concluded that these actions have 'relatively small ecological benefits'.


That’s because individuals are statistically blameless. I find it grossly unfair to pressure consumers into leading better lives, when the government and corporations are failing to pull their weight. The climate crisis requires radical, large-scale solutions and who better to lead the way than the world’s richest 10% who produce half of all carbon emissions?! Or the 100 companies (like Shell and ExxonMobil) that are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988? The poorest 3.5 billion people, conversely, account for just a tenth.


Coca-Cola’s resistance to banning the manufacturing of plastic bottles – of which 108 billion are produced every year – is the perfect example. While it has no plans to discontinue the production of plastic bottles, Coca-Cola has proposed to switch to 50% recycled materials by 2030. The reason for this refusal? 'Consumer demand'. What wasn't mentioned is that Coca-Cola is one of the top plastic polluters globally. But of course, it's our fault. Their seemingly eco-friendly reminder - every bottle cap is inscribed with 'please recycle this bottle' - now seems nothing short of ingenuine.


I’m not the only one who agrees that the onus should be on brands. KPMG surveyed more than 2,000 British consumers and found that 53% of respondents believed that it was the responsibility of companies and manufacturers to ensure their goods are environmentally-friendly. That's not to say that individuals shouldn't feel empowered by reducing their own carbon footprint, but capitalism hasn't earned a 'get out of jail' card for such efforts.


Natalie from @zerowastedoc really hit the nail on the head when she wrote that what the zero waste movement needs is more compassion: 'Compassion for the person working two jobs struggling to cook from scratch. Compassion for the parent who just can’t make cloth nappies work for their baby. Compassion for the people on the poverty line with no money to invest in reusables like period products. Compassion for those who need to fly to see family'.


I share this sentiment wholeheartedly. Consumers should never be made to feel guilty for navigating their way around the murky, greenwashed depths of the capitalist world that got us into this mess in the first place.


If you enjoy my work, you could very kindly buy me a virtual coffee here - it really makes my day!

©2020 by Melissa Watt.