Recycled Capitalism: Greenwashing & Elitism in the Environmental Movement
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Photo by Alena Koval from Pexels
We see it begin around April each year as Earth Day approaches—dozens of big brands and corporations launch their “green” campaigns.
Kauai Coffee promotes their new “Certified 100% Compostable Single-Serve” coffee pods.
RBC donates $9 million in grants for green technology.
Fiji Water pledges to transition to recycled plastic bottles.
On the surface, these seem like commendable actions towards a more sustainable world.
But what Kauai didn’t tell their customers is that the coffee pods are only compostable at hard-to-come-by industrial facilities, not your average backyard compost or in a landfill.
What RBC doesn’t so readily disclose is that they’ve invested 23x their donation amount—over $208 billion—into the fossil fuels industry.
And Fiji Water is simply slashing a recycling symbol over the fact that they profit selling water bottled in plastic at a premium while 47% of Fijians don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.
These are examples of greenwashing—and they’re part of the bigger issues of “green capitalism”.
What is Green Capitalism?
Green capitalism, also known as eco capitalism, is the idea that we can leverage capitalism to remedy environmental issues like pollution and climate change.
As journalist Heather Rogers explains, green capitalism reasons that “we can use the levers of the market to fix the broken environment.”
Here’s an example of how green capitalism’s logic works.
Fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources become scarce the more we use them. So, if businesses don’t want to run into a shortage and inevitably die out, they need to start finding ways to use less fossil fuel and non-renewable resources in their operations. So enter strategies to use less water in production, consume less fuel in transport, and expend less energy in distribution. Not only does efficient resource use result in a lower environmental impact, it also means lower expenses, and therefore, higher profits. In this way, it meets green capitalism’s trademark saying, the “triple bottom line: good for profit, planet, and people”.
But it’s not that simple.
As journalist Heather Rogers asks, where does all that money, water, energy, and other resources a company has saved go?
“They put it right back into making more chemicals. They put it back into growing their business because that’s what you have to do in capitalism. That’s the logic of the market. You have to grow or you lose out to the competition.”
She continues further to ask, if corporations have slightly greener methods of producing whatever it is they make, isn’t that better?
“It could be, except that these energy savings aren’t retired. Whatever energy Wal-Mart forgoes in its more efficient stores and delivery trucks nevertheless gets used by the company. That energy, and more, is consumed by the next Wal-Mart that’s built and the next.”
Green capitalism doesn’t solve any problems or reduce environmental impact. Instead, it simply prolongs the length of time we can continue to produce and consume as usual. It is fundamentally still motivated by profit—planet and people are simply multipliers to get more money.
But green capitalism isn’t simply about how a corporation operates. It’s also fundamentally about how a corporation markets itself.
Greenwashing: Sustainability as a Selling Point
Greenwashing is when companies engage in behaviour to appear “eco-friendly” without actually doing the work. It’s a marketing tactic designed to make money off of people’s sense of morality—not actually foster sustainability.
Kauai Coffee, RBC, Fiji Water, and countless other corporations have hopped on this trend.
There are a few key tactics businesses use to appear eco-friendly.
The first is spin. Companies often use buzzwords like “natural” or “recycled” without providing the full context. Kauai Coffee’s compostable coffee pods at the beginning of this article are an example of this, but there are countless more examples of companies skirting definitions and leaving disclaimers in the fine print. For example, a biodegradable product sounds sustainable, but in reality, biodegradable simply means that it will decompose over 100 years.
Another tactic is pandering. Companies will make statements supporting environmental priorities while also being complicit in environmental destruction. For a prime example, check out RBCRevealed.com, an interactive site that demonstrates RBC’s green pandering and complicity in climate change.
A final key strategy is focusing on branding over business model. Companies will signal sustainability through performative actions instead of actually changing unsustainable business practices. Green imagery and recycling symbols on disposable plastic water bottles are key examples. Check out the 5-minute video essay “Greenwashing: A Fiji Water Story” for a deep dive on this.
At its core, greenwashing is a distraction. It’s using serious issues like pollution and climate change to squeeze dollars from people who genuinely care while most often than not perpetuating these harms.
But greenwashing is more than just a distraction. It’s leading to a serious problem with elitism within the environmental movement.
Is Sustainability Only For the Elite?
Anna Cayco asks this question in her article of the same name. With sustainability becoming a selling point, we’re seeing more sustainable products than ever—from metal straws and reusable water bottles to bamboo toothbrushes.
And as more people begin to care about sustainability, we’re being marketed the idea that sustainability can be bought.
We’re being told that unless you buy a reusable Starbucks mug and use a recycled plastic phone case, you don’t care about the environment.
But what we don’t acknowledge is that shopping sustainably is often more expensive and less accessible.
As Cayco says, “With low minimum wages, many cannot afford to make the switch from cheaper and more ubiquitous plastic-wrapped necessities to more expensive non-single-use, eco-friendly, and ethical products.”
Sustainable options, like increasingly popular zero-waste grocery stores, are often only available in middle to upper-class areas of metropolitan cities making it unsustainable to those who live rurally as well as BIPOC who tend to be segregated to lower-income neighbourhoods.
And so sustainability becomes something that only some can afford.
At best, this can lead to a saviour complex within the sustainability movement.
As Erwin Lizarondo, a professor of social entrepreneurship, explains in Cayco’s article, the elites who own, operate, and promote sustainable products begin to feel a sense of duty to spread sustainable living. However, “good intentions can quickly become saviour complexes due to a preconceived notion of proper livelihood by living in metropolitan cities.” It leads to patronizing, condescension, and deeply untouched biases.
However, at worst, this elitism within the environmental movement leads to what’s known as eco-fascism. It’s a harmful ideology that places the blame of environmental issues on “overpopulation” and “immigration”—which is actually just a thinly-veiled way to blame people experiencing poverty and BIPOC in particular.
This points to the common thread at play throughout the commodification of sustainability—putting the blame of environmental issues on individuals instead of corporations and systems.
Moving Beyond Ethical Consumption
Ethical consumption—paying attention to what we buy and how it was made—is undoubtedly beneficial. However, relying on it only reinforces consumerism and the constant mass production/consumption cycle.
Capitalism is a key cause of environmental and social issues (check out our blog post on the topic). To take substantive action towards environmental solutions, we need to move past it.
Stefano Ponte, a professor of international political economy, writes, “As long as sustainability is used mainly as a marketing and strategic tool, a means of capital and wealth accumulation, and is subservient to economic growth—efficiency gains will continue to be reinvested in further expanding production and consumption and to be transformed in wealth for the global plutocracy, ultimately exacerbating the global sustainability crisis.”
In plain terms, we can’t keep relying on the system that caused the problem to fix it.
Ponte’s recommendation—“We need more radical social and economic transformation and we need to create new spaces for alternatives.”
Capitalism focuses on competition and growth. What if we shifted our priorities?
What would it look like to centre “a paradigm of sufficiency, rather than the maximization of consumption”, as professor of urban and environmental politics and planning Julian Ageyman suggests?
What would it look like to focus on “improving quality of life and wellbeing, rather than growth” and “a community economy and increased public consumption”?
“A myriad of examples are available on how these alternative models of the economy can work and where they are working—especially when coupled with community involvement, union and social activism, decentralization, cooperative forms of organization, and radical and democratic ecological experimentation,” Ponte writes.
More than just academic scholarship, alternate forms of economy exist right in our communities as well—especially for BIPOC.
As with most things, there isn’t one right answer.
But one thing is clear: capitalism will not “save the planet”.
About the Author
Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.
Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.