Ethical consumption as a status marker
Because green/ethical products are usually more costly than other products, this creates a kind of ‘brand community’ of largely middle class people – which is fine, but brand communities based on taste are inevitably self-limiting. Because if everyone displays the same taste by buying the ‘brand’, it can no longer serve as a mark of distinction (or status marker). So this pretty much closes off ethical consumption from the mass market.
The gap between people’s values and their actions
Our everyday lives are structured by the way society’s organised, what materials and skills we have and how our social status is tied up with the stuff we have and use. That’s not to say that these things can’t change – they can, and do. But probably not as the result of individual consumer choices. This is borne out by research which found that people with “green” values behaved in the same ways and had the same carbon footprints as people who didn’t share those values. So there’s a gap between people’s values and intentions and what they can actually do.
Changing the way we behave
Despite this, national and local governments are very keen on trying to change people’s behaviour so that they reduce their carbon emissions. The idea of behaviour change mostly focusses on changing individuals’ consumer choices and on appeals to financial self-interest. For example, the Green Deal that comes into effect this year assumes that people will take on debts to pay for improvements to the energy efficiency of their home, in order to save money by using less energy. The plan is that the money saved on energy bills will repay the debt.
Stopping corporate pollution
But surely a more effective way of reducing household carbon emissions would be to stop them upstream – at the point where they’re produced, for example by cement, steel and other manufacturers, oil companies and the power generators that supply the national grid? Large scale public investment in powering the grid by renewables – with adequate back up – would mean that people could heat and light their houses without producing carbon emissions. It would also create jobs, help develop new and more efficient technologies and help get us out of recession. But it would fly in the face of neoliberal doctrine.
Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher explains, “In a hyper-individualised society, it is no surprise that climate action has been focused up to now on personal responsibility to limit consumption. We receive typically about three thousand adverts every day to consume, so green consumption bolsters that. The mentality is that the problem is one of individual and consumer habits, and that the answer to the climate crisis is lifestyle changes. This reinforces the idea that our primary identity is as a consumer, and reinforces a system that is the main problem. How can we recover and assert a system based on us as human beings rather than consumers?”
Are we citizens or consumers?
Given the neo-liberal ideology of the three mainstream political parties, it’s not surprising that UK climate change policies are geared to treating people as consumers, not citizens.
Rather than framing climate change as a political problem that demands political solutions, successive UK governments – New Labour & ConDem – have defined climate change as a problem caused by market failure, and proposed a variety of financial and consumer-oriented measures to mend this failure.
- Electricity microgeneration feed-in-tariff (FiT)
- Household Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP)
- Green Deal
- Energy Company Obligation (ECO)
- Smart meter roll-out
Are these consumer-facing policies likely to work?
The Green Alliance (who acknowledge Asda, Kelloggs, PepsiCo and Scottish Power among their “partners”) say that,
“The rate of uptake needed to meet government targets is highly ambitious. It requires one home a minute to upgrade its energy efficiency between now and 2050, just under two homes an hour to install renewable heat between now and 2020 and ten homes a minute to have smart meters installed between 2014 and 2019.”
Their assessment is that:
“A national communications exercise will be central to successful delivery of the environmental and social objectives of schemes like the Green Deal, microgeneration and the smart meter roll-out.”
Will a national communications exercise solve the problem?
I think the whole idea is mistaken, that climate change is the result of market failure, and that focussing on financial and consumer-oriented measures will solve it.
I don’t think any amount of communication is going to persuade the public that being good consumers is going to solve the problem. I think deep down, most people recognise a cop-out when they see one. And trying to discipline consumers is a cop out. It lets government off the hook of challenging the power of the new corporate feudalism and the old landed feudalism that, between them, are the root of the problem.
Our governments and their advisors may suffer from a blinkered inability to see beyond the neo-liberal ideology that defines the world in terms of markets, a dominant financial sector and individualised consumers.
But this ideology is the problem and we need to move on from it, if we are to deal with and reduce climate change.
Fixing houses so they are warmer and use less energy makes total sense – it just isn’t likely to be the main way we’re going to reduce climate change.