Guilt and virtue are human beings' greatest drivers. Between the interlinked relationship of "I should've done better" and "I've got to do better" lie most of our motivations, including our fight against climate change. Most of us from the younger generation feel the responsibility to make conscious choices that can affect our future on the planet. We're embracing slow fashion, recycling, making our homes energy efficient, reducing our plastic use and taking public transport whenever possible. Yet, if you feel like your efforts aren't translated into real-life results, you're not alone.
Sometimes nihilism gets the best of us when we see celebrities taking their private jets for merely minutes-long trips emitting literally tonnes of carbon as we swallow mushed paper from the paper straws with our milkshake. We feel that anger and hopelessness because no matter how much our actions are powered by our well-intentioned wills, we are not the problem. Two decades ago British Petroleum, the second largest non-state-owned oil company in the world, pulled the trick of the century by diverting attention from corporate responsibility to individual action in a misleading marketing campaign, or as Mr. Robot from the series known as the show of the zeitgeist calls it, "Psychological warfare in the form of advertising".
BP took the concept of carbon footprint that emerged within the framework of the ecological footprint, serving as an indicator of our environmental impact, and popularized it through an advertising campaign that featured individuals being asked about their carbon footprints. And just like that the responsibility of checking our carbon footprint shifted from large corporations to individuals; a 'personal carbon footprint'. The campaign aimed to encourage people to assess their personal carbon footprints using BP's calculator and explore ways to minimize them, with the slogan "It's a start."
Although carbon footprint is a valuable tool for assessing the environmental impact of human activities, its popularization aimed at persuading consumers that the burden of climate change rested solely on their shoulders, rather than on major oil companies like BP. This approach placed emphasis on individual actions as the primary cause of climate change while conveniently disregarding the underlying sources of power and fuel driving those actions. By doing so, it subtly implied that fossil fuels were the sole option available, neglecting alternative energy sources and their potential contributions to mitigating climate change.
A little misdirection from BP and for 15 years, instead of holding corporations and government officials accountable for the lack of regulations on using fossil fuels, people focused on their own carbon footprints which were a fraction of that of these corporations. It wasn't until 2015, with the signing of the Paris Agreement that governments were able to analyze precise data about their countries’ carbon footprint, and the shift the focus back to companies learning about the hypocrisy of campaigns like 'it's a start'.
The largest sources of carbon emissions stem from industries such as energy production, transportation, and manufacturing and yet, you'll find that the most concerned people are the ones with the carbon footprint of a leaf; the ones that have modified their entire lives to live as green as possible. But to make a substantial and lasting impact, it is crucial to address the systemic issues embedded in corporate practices. This entails robust regulations and enforcement that mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy adoption, encourage circular economy models, and limit environmentally destructive practices.
Entire marketing strategies are built on what the consumers care about. Pride month is here and it's about time brands find new and colourful ways to incorporate a rainbow in their brand identity whether or not they care about LGBTQIA+ lives. The same goes for sustainability. That word has been recycled more times than the products it's used for. Apart from the hollow tokenism that trivializes and weaponized real issues, there's also a disconnection between the source of the problem and where the mends are. A trending thrift culture doesn't remotely affect the fast fashion dumping grounds of Panipat and Chile that are visible from space.
This is not to say that our practices do not count. But we have more power than we are made to believe. Real change demands real action that extends beyond personal choice. Companies and agencies drop artists, actors and employees at the wiff of a PR risk. An unproblematic brand identity is everything, especially if you're a giant conglomerate. This reputational sensitivity combined with cancel culture as a tool sounds like a perfect cocktail of accountability to me. All that's needed is the redirection of our conscious practice from the personal to the collective; a collective "we need to talk" with the big boys at the table.
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