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Guilt and Responsibility: The Trap That Is Called Neoliberalism

written by Fenna


A report in 2019 has identified that 100 energy companies have been responsible for 71% of all industrial emissions since human-driven climate change was officially acknowledged (Griffin, 2017), as 97% of the researchers now agree on this fact. The energy sector, which is a sector that encompasses a complex and interrelated network of involved companies and sectors, such as the agriculture sector, is responsible for a large part of greenhouse gases every year (European Commission, 2017), as well as the food and beverage companies (Axelrod, 2019).

As people around the globe have become increasingly exposed to the effects of the climate crisis, human-driven climate change has become a widely acknowledged topic to be taken seriously. A growing concern for the environment on part of citizens has led to the growing demand for corporations to ensure that their products and services are developed in a sustainable, ecological-friendly manner. Consequently, bamboo toothbrushes, cardboard packaging and canvas bags are plentiful, with packaging labels indication eco-friendliness in manifold manners. More and more often, there is a sustainability-centered discourse penetrating into the boardrooms and public relations departments of big companies. Under the guise of ‘green’ growth, many companies seem to take responsibility for their impacts on our planet. However, in how far is this ‘green’ awareness among major players and other companies that are operating in that same market genuine?

Genuine Green Awareness or Greenwashing?


Many companies, amongst many of those part of the Fortune 500 companies, are accused of being involved in the act of misleading its consumers in terms of the environmental practices of the company or the environmental benefits of a certain product or service (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013). This so-called 'greenwashing’ is the result of the adaptation of corporations to the growing concern among citizens for the environment, as part of a culture of ‘wokeness’. Besides the issue that the corporations are attracting consumers through deceptive marketing practices, greenwashing and window-dressing, it is striking that while many natural fossil resources are facing their depletion, the industrial major powers are getting involved in the topic of sustainability and climate change issues. Since the beginning of industrial capitalism and colonialism, nature has been used to be exploited for economic benefits (Lagunas, 2020). Exploitation functions as the core of the capitalist mechanism, a means to gather capital and as the historical development of capitalism (Zukerfeld, 2017). Nature, in this sense, is nothing more than a means to an end - a resource that can be transformed into something valuable, valuable in capitalistic terms. While commodifying Earth’s natural resources, corporate greenwashing functions to hide this process of commodification. Arguably, as long as we live in a free market system, companies will exploit people and planet to undercut each other.



On the other hand, it seems like there are some genuine efforts of corporations to positively contribute to climate change and adopt environmental ethics as part of their brand. There is a serious motivation in the private sector to do better, to take responsibility and aim for a triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental sustainability. Looking at Heineken starting a change of course with “Drop the C”, and Volkswagen declaring post-‘Diesel Gate’ to be entirely CO2-neutral (Beukeboom, 2020). Brands such as IKEA, Campina and Albert Heijn are part of the top 20 most sustainable brands in 2019 (Sustainable Brand Index, 2019). Moreover, we see a rise in brands that offer vegan and/or vegetarian products, like ‘De Vegetarische Slager’ (The Vegetarian Butcher) appearing in commercial, large-scale supermarkets, easily available for anyone.

However, implications arise for these sometimes self-pronounced, sometimes awarded sustainable brands. In the car industry, electric and hybrid cars only make up 3,64% of all the cars produced in Europe, the electricity to charge a battery-powered car is still generated from fossil fuels, and green space is replaced by paved roads (Balch, 2013); Albert Heijn keeps selling meat for questionably dirt-cheap prices, and smartly advertises ‘more sustainable products’ (Aarnoudse, 2015; Govers, 2019) – note: more sustainable is not sustainable. IKEA illegally cuts down virgin forest in the Ukraine (Eartsight, 2020); Campina is one of the largest dairy producers in the Netherlands; and De Vegetarische Slager is one of many to be bought up by a large corporation (Brunt, 2020), in this case Unilever, that is not innocent either (Dupont-Nivet, 2017; Aarnoudse, 2015; van der Wal, 2011).

By incorporating the growing environmental awareness as part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or Public Relations campaigns a new spin within the capitalist system was found: letting consumers believe that they can help the environment by purchasing ostensibly sustainable and eco-friendly products (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013). By offering consumers the choice between a ‘green’ product and a ‘normal’ product, a sense of responsibility among consumers was fueled – the responsibility for making the better choice. However, the problem is that this lesser-of-evils-choice is still operating within the same neoliberal, capitalist context that has its key focus on making a profit, rather than being concerned with the environment (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013).

The environment for them is approached as something that can be bought and sold (Lubbers, 2002). Hence, through offering green consumer choices, environmental change also seems like something that can be purchased. In this way, the focus is shifted from corporations as the cause of the large part of the world’s environmental issues, and from the government as regulators: Now, agency and responsibility are placed upon individuals rather than companies and corporations.

In this sense, there is the idea that societal, structural issues can be solved by the acts of individual consumers' choices. However, the problem here is that through this capitalistic mechanism, citizens – read consumers – can voice their opinion by voting with their money (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013). There is a focus on the individual, rather than the collective or society. Moreover, it reinforces the artificially constructed need for endless consumption, a need that fuels an unsustainable society (Kassiola, 2003). It is exactly this focus that works in the hand of the neoliberalist, capitalist logic while shifting away from collective action that is needed to stimulate meaningful environmental and social change (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013). As long as green policies are kept obstructed and fossil fuel subsidies are flowing, collective action is needed that does not play in the hand of corporations and their logic. The celebration of hyper-individualism and competitive self-interests under neoliberalism has hindered collective bonds. We tend to think that we ourselves are responsible for the problems that we come across in society, rather than the capitalistic and exploitative system that is the cause for structural problems. Hence, according to this logic, we, ourselves, are responsible for the potential ecological collapse.

That is not to say that individual choices are not important or do not matter. However, individual choices will be more impactful when the economic system provides genuine sustainable and ecologically-friendly options available for everyone, not just for those able to afford solar panels. If mass consumerism remains promoted, we will keep buying, whether it has green packaging or not (Budinsky & Bryant, 2013). Green consumer choices are important, yet not the final answer. Additionally, individual choices will be more impactful when individual action turns into bottom-up collective action. Good news is that collective action is taken as more movements are joining forces to defy the neoliberal ideology. A growing concern for traditional and local practices that focus on working together with nature, rather on just profiting from nature, is countering against the neoliberalist logics of the West. Once we learn about and understand the unsustainable logic of the economic system we live in, it will make more sense to blame the system - rather than the citizens, to whom this system is solely imposed upon.



Let me know in the comments what you think, or reach out to me when you want to leave something behind!


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