If consumers are not given the tools to go green, then their eco-awakening could doom the climate.
Biodiversity loss threatens one million animals and plants with extinction. But as we celebrate United Nations International Day for Biodiversity (May 22nd) we see a silver lining: consumers are waking up. There is an ‘eco-awakening’, where environmental consciousness and consumerism intertwine, transforming how we live and interact with the world.
However, going green can be tricky. Faced with a lack of transparency, consumers are often unable to make the right choices, dooming the climate unless we adopt transformative solutions.
After the events of 2020, consumers made one thing clear: they want a more sustainable world. The WWF recently reported on this eco-awakening, finding that 93 per cent of Europeans consider biodiversity a ‘very serious’ problem, reflecting a change in consumption patterns which will predict how consumers act in the future. For example, a recent report by Future Market Insights discovered the ‘organic’ skincare market is expected to grow 8.1 per cent in the next decade, as more people use the experiences of Covid-19, climate change and increasing health problems to influence purchases.
Yet as more consumers make the transition to ‘eco-friendly’ choices, there is a risk of companies marketing unsustainable products as sustainable to meet demand. The Competition and Markets Authority in the United Kingdom has promised to tackle misleading ‘green’ claims, having found that 40 per cent of globally advertised online products featured false or misleading environmental assertions.
The term ‘organic’ has been particularly controversial. A UK study discovered organic produce yielded 40 per cent less than alternatives, therefore requiring up to 1.5 times more land. An MIT Technology Review report found that due to this increase in land—often outsourced to vulnerable tropical forests such as around the Amazon—organic produce released 21 per cent more greenhouse gases than its counterparts.
This ‘greenwashing,’ or the attempt to disguise environmentally harmful products as environmentally friendly, will only grow as more consumers convert to sustainable options. This is in part due to a lack of accountability but also because consumers are often unaware of a commodity’s true carbon footprint.
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And when it comes to protecting biodiversity, these components add up. For example, there was a recent consumer-led backlash against products containing palm oil—a versatile vegetable oil which many do not know can be sustainably sourced—leading to boycotts and many companies switching to soybean oil.
Yet soy requires roughly eight times as much land as palm oil and is proven drastically to reduce bird diversity in the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation has surged to a 12-year high. As soy production increases to meet consumer demand, the effects on the world’s richest and most vulnerable ecosystem will be devastating.
The issue with consumer-led change is that, to be successful, it has to be based on accurate information which brands—and governments—support through transparency and accountability. Studies show that sustainable adaptations such as certification schemes and eco-labels contribute to transparency but that many consumers are unsure how to use them adequately in everyday life.
For instance, a 2019 study into eco-labelling and consumption in the UK found that while 82 per cent of respondents recognised the Fairtrade label, only 29 per cent would consider Fairtrade when shopping. Further, age, gender, socio-economic status and education all contributed to the likelihood of consumers recognising ecolabels, indicating an information gap in consumer knowledge.
This should not have to happen. Technology, and an increasingly interconnected world, make it possible to create systems which educate all consumers about a product’s true environmental impact.Studies show that while eco-labels do contribute to sustainability, these processes can be combined with supply-chain details—as with how a parcel can be tracked—allowing consumers to see a product’s journey, from origin to shelf.
New technologies, such as blockchain, can be used, leveraging data to uncover supply chains. Carbon footprints can be calculated in seconds through organisations, such as Sourcemap, which reveal supply chains through technology and visualisation tools to provide consumers—and businesses—with innovative means to make green choices and prevent ecological loss.
Filling the gaps
And while technology aids consumers in their eco-awakening, government can fill the gaps.
Governments must ensure businesses source their products sustainably through legislation which protects biodiversity, limits deforestation and promotes certification schemes. For example, Malaysia has succeeded in reducing deforestation every year since 2016, in large part because of its nationally mandated and legally enforceable Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme. This proves government-enforced regulations can help commodity producers meet high standards in line with global requirements.
Ultimately, if governments and technology combine adequately to support consumers in their quest to become more eco-friendly, the climate crisis is one step closer to being solved. The sustainable consumer revolution is coming—is everyone ready?
Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare, as well as politics in the middle east. She is currently working as a research associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.