In the last year there has been a lot of talk about what we can do as individuals to help reduce our personal carbon footprints – everything from shopping with reusable grocery bags to selling your car and stopping flying. These suggestions are offered as simple solutions that, given time and commitment from people, can change the fate of the planet for the better.
However, there have also been a lot of calls from people suggesting that an overwhelming percentage of our global emissions are coming from a select group of 100 businesses on such a large scale that we as consumers have absolutely no power to stop them without mass intervention, often at the governmental level. Some of these calls also suggest that changes to our everyday life as individuals are in fact utterly redundant in the grand scheme of things, or that these small changes are being promoted by big businesses in order to draw the responsibility of climate change away from themselves.
In their own way, both arguments are completely valid. In fact, both arguments are intertwined with each other to the extent that we cannot have large-scale business change without small-scale personal change, but these small scale changes, when taken out of a wider context, do in fact seem very limited in their ability to improve the plant’s declining health. But why are we spending so much time debating whether the individual or the big corporation should take responsibility for fixing the planet instead of actually doing something about it?
The difficulty of taking down one of the world’s 100 largest businesses is inherent. They are large companies that own a lot of other companies that employ a lot of people who would be very unhappy to lose their jobs. You can try tweeting these corporations and sending them letters and complaining about them on the internet (and please do because occasionally it does work), but a lot of the time you’ll receive an automated reply from their social media and PR department with a greenwashed document attached that labels how all of the company’s offices recycle and use low-energy light bulbs. They own such a disproportionate percentage of the global marketplace that you’re probably still buying their products without realising it. They won’t drastically change their ways just because they got a few emails – your money is falling into their pockets regardless of the twitter rant you just posted.
It’s easy to shirk the responsibility of the planet’s impending doom onto this mysterious 100, intangible and massive as they are, and accept that you as an individual have absolutely no power to change them without intervention from your government or some higher power. But you have more power than you think you do.
The scale of impact that an individual has on the planet by walking to work a bit more or reducing the amount of meat they eat can seem so incredibly tiny that surely it won’t actually make a difference to the overall picture. For every person who turns vegan, there are still a whole handful of people ordering beef burgers that come from cattle ranches. One person is not going to make a difference overnight.
But here’s where the two sides of the argument meet.
It’s not about what actions you take as an individual, it’s about how the action is carried out.
Example: you love eating at the world’s largest fast-food burger chain (let’s call them Burger Lord), which is owned and funded by a massive conglomerate. They happen to source their beef from ranches in the Amazon rainforest. You’ve recently decided to go vegan to reduce the amount of beef you eat to improve your carbon footprint. No more burgers. Sad.
Suddenly, Burger Lord comes out with a vegan burger. Amazing! You go back to the restaurant for a guilt-free vegan burger. What’s the issue?
Well, you’re still supporting the same company. Okay, they’re not using beef to produce what you’re eating, but you’re still giving your money to the same company, and at the end of the day that’s all they really care about. You don’t know where your money goes once you pay for the burger, and that money could, in fact, be supporting the creation of a brand new cattle ranch. What’s worse is that by creating a vegan product the company has seen no reduction in the number of beef burgers consumed by their customers, but instead they’ve simply attracted a brand new customer base of vegans who are delighted by the meat-free offering. They have increased their earnings AND managed to greenwash the public into thinking they care about the environment! Winners!
So what could be done differently? Well, if you become aware that a company is not behaving in an environmentally responsible way then don’t give them your money. Full stop. Find an alternative company or small business that can give you the same offering with a guarantee that it’s better-sourced than your previous choice. Go to the locally-sourced vegan cafe for your vegan burger. It will definitely taste better. It might be a little more expensive, but you’re supporting a company that doesn’t own any cattle ranches and therefore your money will not be going towards building a new one. Secondly, be aware of whether the company you’re buying from is owned by a larger organisation that doesn’t have well-regarded sustainability practices. You’ll be surprised how many brands are owned by huge multinational corporations.
Bringing it back to fashion, this means no more shopping at companies like the boohoo group (this includes boohoo, boohooMAN, PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal, MissPap, Karen Millen and Coast), Missguided, Forever 21, New Look and Primark. Even if the label says that it’s made with recycled polyester or organic cotton, these companies are by far the worst offenders for completely unsustainable (and often unethical) practices. Your money is funding the oil industry by buying their polyester.
Do some research about things. Yes, it’s harder than just buying what you want when you want it. But I promise that when you do buy something that you know is coming from a responsible source the feeling is much more fulfilling and the bragging rights are awesome.
These individual actions can be used to make big corporations change their ways. You as a consumer have the power to influence the one thing that business literally runs on – money. If companies start to notice a drop in their sales or yearly revenues, they’ll take action to try and increase it again. If the market for small-scale responsibly sourced businesses grows and receives customers then we’ll get more small-scale responsibly sourced businesses.
Support your local stores and be inquisitive. Ask them where their products come from and if they can’t answer you then question it. It might be that they haven’t thought about it but your question has provoked that thought process. Be a more conscious consumer and don’t compromise on your values. Buy things less frequently and buy higher quality products. When you do need to purchase something make sure to buy the change you want to see in the world.