Capitalism, ecological modernisation and consumerism; a critique.

In an article for The Guardian, Olivia Boyd (2017) reports that P&G has announced plans for a limited run of Head and Shoulders shampoo bottles which will be partially made out of plastic waste collected by volunteers on France’s beaches. Even though these bottles will represent 0.6% of the annual number of bottles sold and the proportion of recycled plastic in each bottle will be up to 25%, this initiative is still classified as a technological breakthrough. Steven Morgan from Recoup suggests that in the past other companies failed to use recycled materials due to their degraded state, but P&G is making it technically viable.

This is a clear example of ecological modernisation whereby the company links its quest for profit with environmental protection. Ecological modernisation emerged in the 1980s within the German school of environmental sociology, it challenged the core ideas of the demodernisation perspective and was widely adopted in the western world to create win-win solutions for both the economy and the environment. Through technological innovation companies reduce the production costs while they tap into the growing market sector of environmentally conscious consumers. The adoption of this discourse also reduces any future economic risks that polluting industries will face in the context of multi-level environmental governance (Janicke, 2007). Another similar example of ecological modernisation is that of Adidas and its ocean-plastic made shoes. The company collaborated with Parley for the Oceans an organisation which is cleaning up oceans from plastic while investing in finding a new material to replace plastic with. Adidas sold 7000 pairs of this shoe for 220 dollars each and it has plans to eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain by an undefined point of time in the future (Business Insider, 2016). Whilst Parley as an organisation might truly be pushing for environmental protection and for eliminating the use of plastic and the pollution plastic causes, Adidas is seeing a very profitable business opportunity in collaborating with them and presenting consumption of their new product as the solution to protecting the environment.

However, this technocratic character and technological optimism that all environmental problems can be sold within our current capitalist system has been heavily criticised since this is what caused the problem in the first place (Mol and Spaargaren, 1997). Both P&G and Adidas do not suggest a degrowth strategy that would radically alter the structure of demand/supply but look at how they can keep making profit while appearing to be saving the planet. P&G for example is not actively involved in cleaning the oceans from plastics but merely uses the work of volunteers to then go on and make profit out of it while boosting their public image as a “green company”. This is a classic example of corporate environmentalism which as Wright and Nyberg (2013) suggest is a ‘myth’ companies create to emphasize their central role in solving environmental issues while distracting us from adopting a more effective and radical restructuring of the global economic system but also from other environmental problems they cause such as P&G supporting unsustainable palm oil production (Amnesty International, 2016). In addition, despite the change in the packaging there is no mention about changing the chemicals used for the content. Finally, this approach does not address the issue of consumption. Polonsky (2011) argues that even if companies put environmental protection at their core of both their production and their marketing of goods and services, the final call of responsibility lies within the consumers themselves who most of the time are ignorant or indifferent to the impacts of their consumption choices. As Hedrickx and Nicolaij (2004) found that consumers discount future environmental risks more than other types of risk, we are caught up in what Schumpeter (1942) calls “creative destruction” where in order for capitalism to grow it is essential that crisis (in this case natural resource exploitation) occurs.

Current normative adoption of ecological modernisation is still favouring the economic aspect of the scale rather than the environmental one. Businesses adopt a weak form of ecological modernisation because it offers them a good business case. A stronger form of ecological modernisation would entail a socio-cultural and legislative transformation of how the global economy works whereby want-satisfaction is delivered to people without owning the assets that have the value e.g. car sharing schemes. However, a global change like this would be too radical for both businesses and for consumers. This is why we have seen a rise in green consumerism which allows consumers to distance themselves from the waste and environmental degradation they associate with mass consumerism without having to reject consumerism entirely (Harrison, 2006).

In a way this attitude is underpinned by the belief that development follows an environmental ‘Kuznets curve’ – that is that pollution starts out low, increases at early stages of development and then diminishes as economy shifts into post-industrial stage. However, this belief is not applicable in the real world because under global neoliberalism polluting industries usually get displaced to the developing world (Baker, 2006). Furthermore, Jevon’s paradox explains that as the efficiency of resource use increases, products become cheaper thus increased accessibility increases demand which ends up increasing resource use. These theories reinforce that capitalism is inherently unsustainable and that despite ecological modernisation if there is no change in consumer culture, we will never stop exploiting our planet’s resources.

To conclude, I believe that despite the arguably beneficial technological progress, ecological modernisation is not radical or rapid enough to tackle the problem of increasing plastic consumption and marine pollution. As the Guardian article highlights, plastic production is expected to double in the next two decades and more plastic than fish could exist in our oceans by 2050. A truly effective approach as Unwin and Goodwin suggest in the article, would be to completely eliminate waste and make sure it does not enter our oceans in the first place. This aligns with the idea of The Blue Economy by Pauli (2010) and the “All change” discourse by Bina (2013). An “All change” approach would tackle the fundamental unsustainability of our current economic system and redefine growth and progress not as purely economic but as two processes that put present and future environmental protection and human wellbeing at their core. To achieve that there is a need for stricter government regulation and a need for civil society to engage in environmental politics more but also embrace a change of lifestyle.


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