Environmental Exploitation

Consumerism and exploitative companies have harmed the environment under the guise of environmental consciousness and philanthropy, and governments need to protect their people from this.

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Greta Thunberg has become the icon of Gen Z and saving the environment. While she is usually in the news protesting for environmentally friendly products and laws, in a seemingly crazy turn of events, she protested against wind turbines, a clean energy source replacing harmful fossil fuels. Thunberg and protestors from the indigenous Sámi people stood outside Norwegian government buildings in Oslo because the wind farms in the Fosen region in Central Norway threaten their centuries-old tradition of reindeer herding. This places the relationship between corporate interests and human rights under a new lens. These companies do not establish wind farms for the betterment of the world; it’s all about the money.

Consumerism disproportionately affects the environment’s impact on marginalized people, such as the Sámi. Peter Wenz, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, details that the capitalist market fuels the use of desirable land for profit, leaving undesirable land uses—such as factories, landfills, incinerators, refineries, and chemical plants that harm the health of citizens—for lower-income communities.

The Norwegian government has attempted to protect people from this, such as after the Industrial Revolution, when peasants were living and working in horrible conditions. An October 2021 Norwegian Supreme Court ruling was supposed to protect them, but it has since been violated and only recently acknowledged by the Norwegian Prime Minister.

The effects of consumerism-fueled markets impact our modern-day lifestyle as well as greenwashing, which is the use of advertising or marketing to deceptively persuade the public that an organization’s products (such as H&M’s claim that its clothes were made with “at least 50 percent sustainable materials” when they were actually made of unsustainable polyester), aims, and policies are environmentally friendly. Some other infamous examples include Volkswagen completely fabricating their cars’ fuel efficiency and Walmart and Kohl’s taking a page from H&M’s book by claiming their rayon textiles were made of environmentally-friendly bamboo. This is one of the most prominent effects of the rise of environmental consciousness, and companies profit from that. When 1,000 U.S. adults were interviewed this year, it revealed that two-thirds are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Not only is greenwashing another attempt to exploit consumerism to favor the political and social climate, but it is also hard to discern which companies are truthful.

Though the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against 21 companies in the U.S. for using misleading environmental marketing, and the Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed two new regulations to regulate greenwashing in investment banking, these types of regulations need to be efficient and discourage companies from greenwashing. Consumers can try to cut down on their environmentally harmful habits by reducing water usage, and transferring to clean energy. As Ellis Jones, a sociologist who studies greenwashing at the College of the Holy Cross, says, “When in doubt, go smaller, local, and independent.” However, it should not be up to the consumers to protect themselves from exploitative companies and marketing—that should be the government’s moral responsibility. Specifically, a great example is the European Union’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which legally requires companies to back up any and all sustainability claims with true data. This can make companies reevaluate the pros and cons of making misleading marketing decisions. After all, if it’s cutting into their profits, stakeholders get angry, and the companies are forced to stop.