Can You Really Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is When It Comes to the Climate Crisis?
BY CHIARA FIELDS
We’re often taught that we, as individual consumers, can positively affect climate change by choosing to purchase products from “Green'' companies that supposedly make a commitment to sustainability and emissions reduction. We’re told that if there is a higher demand for plastic-free and reusable products, slow fashion, vegan food, etc., then we can shape supply chains and each become bona fide climate activists. But, what we aren’t taught is that when we casually go to the store on the Sunday before Finals Week to buy Kraft Mac and Cheese for dinner and mindlessly eat our stress away, we’re actually contributing to a massive network of palm forest deforestation, which adds well over 500 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.
Most people don’t know that most ordinary products, like Kraft Mac and Cheese, contain palm oil, and many more don’t know the extent to which deforestation occurs because of palm oil procurement. And why would they? Not only do people rarely have access to transparent information or the time to read through ingredients at the grocery store, but there are also more than 400 different names for palm oil alone, indicating that industries without a vested interest in reducing climate change-causing activities are tactically deceiving the general public. Knowing that Kraft isn’t the only culprit of this, but just one of many companies contributing to climate change, it would seem impossible for people to create meaningful consumer choices when product information is so ambiguous, limited, and hard to access.
This all seems to be made worse by the fact that nearly everything we buy in terms of food in the United States ultimately derives from a small number of monopolies, 10 to be specific. These companies control nearly every step of the supply chain, and they hold significant political influence because of their sheer physical and economic size. Given this, they also maintain significant control over the ability of consumers to make choices with the climate in mind. For instance, if you go to the market to buy an Honest Tea green tea, which at its face does not seem to have any overtly problematic ingredients, you are actually buying from a Coca-Cola owned brand. In the last few years, Coca-Cola has been on the receiving end of significant criticism and multiple lawsuits for their contribution to climate change, plastic pollution, and greenwashing. In fact, while Coca-Cola touts its sustainable branding in the media through flashy language and images of clean water and recycle bins, it remains one of the worst offenders for carbon emissions because of their plastic packaging and the ingredients used in their products. Looking at food specifically, even if consumers are doing what they can to purchase products with sustainable ingredients and packaging, the likelihood that the profits made from these goods go towards one of these ten climate change-inducing companies is extremely high. As consumers, we are faced with multiple dilemmas in this way. We need information on the ingredients of products, the packaging of products, possible alternatives to products, parent brands of products, and the list goes on.
So, is it actually possible for people to reduce carbon emissions through the products they buy and the subsequent companies they monetarily support? Yes and no. To an extent, everyday people can educate themselves and choose to buy environmentally friendly products with the resources available to them. This is particularly shown in the fast fashion industry, for example. While fast fashion is definitely still highly demanded, there has also been an impressive push for buying second hand clothes through thrift stores and online platforms, as well as buying sustainable clothes from slow fashion brands that emphasize product quality. With that being said, it is really unlikely for the average consumer to avoid products which have more veiled contributions to climate change, especially when consumption often involves experiences that don’t necessitate considering the Climate Crisis–like grabbing some comfort food before Finals.
Proposed solutions to these consumer dilemmas vary in their degrees of viability and success. Carbon footprint labeling, for instance, involves the implementation of product labels that explicitly state the carbon footprint of said product. This has some success in reducing incentives for buying goods with high carbon footprints, but it does assume that these carbon footprint labels are accurate, that the average person understands carbon metrics, and that there are alternative products available.
Importantly, government agencies also need to implement more effective strategies for enforcing transparency among large companies, especially those that are known to engage in greenwashing. This means creating organizations whose primary function is to investigate companies, and others that are tasked with making information clear and easy to find with a simple Google search. It is necessary for federal, state, and local governments to express the importance of consumer choice in their policies, meaning that consumers should have a wide range of sustainable products to choose from. When information is so vague and hard to find, and when so many everyday products contribute to climate change in varying ways, it should not solely be left up to the consumer to affect change. Yes, there is power in consumer decisions, but how much power can there really be when sustainable products are so limited?