The environment is connected to almost every aspect of our lives, from what we eat and wear to the choices we make on a daily basis like taking the car or cycling down to the supermarket.
The trend towards sustainability shot up during the 1980s; most people ended up becoming enthusiastic environmentalists watching out for plastic straws and polluting vehicles. Institutional changes were being made (the UN launched its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988). The 2000s waved in a period of multiple climate strikes such as the Copenhagen Climate Rally in 2009 and the Climate Protest in Delhi in September 2019.
The climate awareness movement also influenced lifestyle choices which made people switch to organic food, organic clothes, recycled products, and ‘greener’ consumption. Little did people realise that simply reducing the use of plastic straws or switching to ‘green’ products will not be enough to help the environment.
The real problem was—and still remains—the corporations involved in the mass production of consumer goods, functioning entirely for profit with little regard for the environment. Such corporations have a history of making tall claims—often about issues related to environment, human rights of workers etc.—that they rarely live up to: Amazon, for instance, has received flak for poor working conditions at its packaging factories. This practice of misleading consumers with false claims around environmental practices and products by companies is called ‘greenwashing’.
Most companies greenwash as a strategy to follow the trends on sustainability and widen their consumer base. Arrowhead, Nestle’s subsidiary, had a campaign called ‘Recycling is Beautiful’ that ‘encouraged’ consumers to recycle more so that they can produce 100 per cent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of recyclable plastic) bottles. However, manufacturers have always been unhappy about recycling this plastic because it costs more than making new PET plastic. 1
Even if companies and countries increase recycling to unprecedented levels, it will not solve our problems (which we ourselves have created!). Firstly, the rate of production of new plastic bottles is way higher than the rate of recycling and reusing them. Globally, more than a million plastic bottles are sold every single minute. Only 30 per cent of these bottles get recycled in the US; the figure is the same for India. 2
Secondly, the ultimate destination still remains the landfills or worse, incinerators. Lastly, the process of producing new plastic bottles itself is highly energy-consuming. None of this is helpful to the environment! The food and beverage industry along with the plastic industry have unsustainable practices and products and we should not believe their claims unless they give us solid proof (tested and labelled by government standards or other means of transparent reporting) of their sustainability practices.
The fast-fashion industry is equally at fault for misleading us while violating environmental and human rights during its production process, especially in the Third World where labour rights are treated casually and environmental clearances are given arbitrarily. H&M, the Swedish multinational clothing retail company, released its ‘Conscious Collection’ following the trend among the young for sustainable clothing. It claimed that this collection, made out of sustainably sourced materials such as 100 per cent organic cotton, Tencel or recycled polyester, will be beneficial to the environment.
The company, however, conveniently forgot to mention how it will do so. In terms of explaining why these products are ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, the only justification given is that they use up to 50 per cent recycled material (20 per cent for cotton products) in production. This is a prevalent technique of being vague. The fashion industry is a symptom of a disposable society where new clothing lines and designs are launched every week by thousands of retailers and brands, encouraging consumers to keep up with trends and buy more with no end to it.
H&M also has a policy of giving discounts for used clothes which they claim to recycle. Globally, only 25 per cent of the clothes going into recycling actually end up in sorting plants, according to The Economist (Weekly Edition April 2017). 2
In all this, the waste production is simply delayed and not reduced. We are merely delaying severe climate emergencies instead of actually doing something to stop them from happening. We exist in a capitalist society based on exploitation and expansion and individual consumers have hardly any say on the practices followed by industry. Corporations often shift the burden on to consumers by campaigning for recycling and choosing ‘greener’ products, while they go on doing business as usual.
There are plastic producers around the world trying to oppose legislation to ban plastic because that would mean reduced profits for them. Save the Plastic Bag Coalition and the American Progressive Bag Alliance was formed to fight bag bans under the guise of defending customers’ finances and freedom to choose.
There is a need to recognise the fact that a ground-up mass movement of people who care about the environment can drive change. While people are more conscious of their choices and more aware of the products they use these days, governments need to devise innovative ways to force companies to comply with stricter environmental regulations and actively protect the existing natural resources.
At a micro-level, individual practices like thrifting (reusing) clothes, reusing metal bottles instead of buying plastic bottles, using cloth bags instead of plastic bags, etc would incorporate sustainable behaviour in the routine lives of people.