Corporations were the first to ‘Pass Go’ into modern throwaway culture, and they continue to hinder the tide from turning back towards the sustainability of post-war ‘make do and mend’.
Last week, I found my usual shower daydream interrupted by a wracking guilt when I noticed the rows of plastic bottles in my bathroom, standing like soldiers ready to ravage the environmental battlefield. I find little consolation in the knowledge that your bathrooms and kitchens – your whole houses, in fact – are probably equally full of plastic. I’m sure you have the same pang of guilt every time you glance at the bathroom shelf, in the fridge, under the sink, and see what you know full well to be killing the planet. But why are we placing so much blame on individuals for their slightly less than eco-friendly lifestyles? The reality is that over 70% of global emissions since 1988 have originated from just 100 companies. We’ve blindly fallen for the idealistic saviour complex fed to us by huge corporations who want a 'get out of jail free card’ so they can avoid having to carry out an environmentally motivated upheaval in their business - one which would actually make a difference.
But how can such a socially conscious generation have missed this dangerous misalignment between the impact companies have on the environment and the effort they put in to save it? It seems our focus is diverted by the sea of voices on social media wailing about straws killing the turtles. About plastic water bottles. About how many cars are on the road. In this age where everything we do is visible and therefore scrutinised, concern over the dangerous chemical BPA in plastics has been tossed aside by a concern over giving the Best Public Appearance when it comes to how we’re helping the environment. So instead of championing corporate change, we are left obsessing over remembering to refuse a straw when we go out for drinks, and knowing the bus timetable off by heart so our efforts to be environmentally friendly don't make us late. Even so, I managed to miss the start of a climate protest this summer because I had to run home for my reusable water bottle – heaven forbid I should buy a plastic one on my way.
Why can businesses get away with it, but I can’t? They don’t even have to bother with smoke and mirrors – we've distracted ourselves from their misdemeanours. We’re so busy calling out one another for any action with a negative environmental impact that we can’t step back to see the bigger picture. So what’s the reality? Individual attitudes and behaviours may be moving in the right direction, but beneath the façade of change in the general populace is the dark truth that, until big businesses turn the tide, we can never solve the problem of climate change. The environmental choices we make are but a glimmer of light swamped by the billowing black clouds of pollution caused by corporations.
Companies continue to churn out emissions at an alarming rate, making disposable products which simply add fuel to the flames of throwaway culture. Greenwashing is rampant - they plaster green labels on shelves stacked with plastic because the packaging is made from 50% recycled materials. They advertise compostable packaging without mentioning that you’ll need an industrial composting facility. And in doing so they expect waves of praise for the tiny change they’ve made to a product which will ultimately end up in landfill. But they seem quite happy to ride on the coattails of positive publicity that they receive for these pitifully minor adjustments; if you lift the rug of any company who has made a change like this it won’t take you long to find the pollution that was swept under it to make a presentable home for environmental credit.
How, then, can we reconcile the social pressure for individual action with the reality that it is businesses which can turn the tide against environmental contamination, against consumerism, against climate change? We need to stop kidding ourselves that we as individuals will save the planet. But if we as individuals become a collective and move the spotlight away from trivial solutions (straws, I’m looking at you) onto corporations, we can push for real improvement. It’s time to realise that this isn’t Monopoly – a ‘get out of jail free card’ just won’t cut it anymore. Those 100 companies need to ‘Pass Go’ and collect sustainability.