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Collective Action: The Environment Needs More Than Just You (or Me)

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Washington DC, United States: As we round the corner of mid-April and move on towards Earth Day, you’ll likely see a myriad of articles touting examples of how to reduce your personal use of single-use plastics, the theme of Earth Day this year. Especially after cosmically timed, tragic images of a dead sperm whale with over 64 pounds of plastic waste lodged in its stomach have made the rounds on social media, everyone is looking to do something. Consumer plastic reduction is a worthy goal. It is, however, not the full scope of the necessary steps towards environmental change. Instead of laying the responsibility primarily at the feet of consumers, why not cut off single-use plastics at the source: the corporations and supply chains that continue to produce them even with the knowledge that they drive ecological ruin.   

Personal choices do make positive changes. It’s small, but if done en masse, we can reduce our environmental damage as a species. Ultimately, the most any of us can do is control our own actions, and doing so to reduce our contribution to environmental ruin and human suffering is never a bad thing. However, it’s not nearly as influential as changes made by entire industries or large multi-national corporations. These companies have, generally, passed the responsibility on to us, and it’s entirely unfair. The assumption is that it’s up to “the people” to make environmental choices, not companies (apparently corporations are only people when it comes to the beneficial sides of personhood). They aggressively lobby against regulations, move to countries with exploitative labor practices, and create an unfathomable amount of waste. Meanwhile, it’s up to people, who may be struggling to find ways to avoid single-use plastic or ethically made goods… from the companies who continue to push them out onto the market, to shoulder the burden of environmental protection.

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Those in power abuse it. That's why collective action not just individual action is needed.

These companies run ad campaigns that earn them goodwill, imploring their customers to recycle, to be kind, to make personal changes. They try to “raise awareness” of important issues, but the perpetual problem with such campaigns is that they do nothing – you can’t change the world with awareness, but with action. These companies often make efforts in advertising only, leaving the real work to us.

A business can run ads about female empowerment, for example, all day, but without making sure that enough women sit on its board and in executive positions, it is still part of the problem. We need consumers to understand that making personal changes not only have immediate ramifications but should be done IN ORDER TO make polluting and exploitative industries change. Why take on the burden of responsibility when we can cut off the flow of these goods at the source?

As I’ve written before, greenwashing is proof that companies know that consumers care about the environment and would rather give the appearance of social and environmental justice than change their practices. According to Pew Research Center, Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force; this means we’re also the largest generation of consumers. Furthermore, in a new poll, Pew found that Millennials are significantly more liberal than their predecessors, and even Gen X has become more liberal on issues from immigration to the environment than they had been just ten years ago. Millennials are also willing to pay more for brands that they feel reflect their values. We exert more effort and pay more to live ethically, and that’s great. But not all millennials have the means to do so or overextend their finances trying to achieve a conscientious lifestyle (sounds awfully familiar for a certain eco-writer…). That’s where environmental justice comes in. We need to make sure environmentalism is not just for the wealthy, but an ethos that everyone can adopt. The first step towards that is government regulation and real corporate social responsibility.

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Through focusing so acutely on personal responsibility, we’ve given corporations tacit permission to continue putting the burden of saving the environment on us. Even if you personally never use plastic straws, they are still being made by the trillions, and all of those will eventually be used or, even worse, find their way to landfills or the ocean unused. Large-scale bans of single-use plastic are an excellent step forward, threatening companies with the loss of entire markets and damaging their reputation. The Queen of England recently banned single-use plastic from her palace, and the BBC have said they plan to go zero-waste in the coming years. We need to continue this trend, to keep pushing our lawmakers to put regulations on businesses that thrive on exploitation and environmental destruction. They won’t change unless we force them to, but when they do, the impacts will be swift and significant.

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