Shifting Blame on Climate Shame

How big companies make you responsible for their environmental impact


CW: This article briefly mentions climate change denial and the appropriation of Native American culture, which could be distressing to some readers.


Environmental consciousness is trending. The concept even has its own counter-movement of "climate change deniers", made up of various influential figures. This pressing social issue has been largely reduced to political fodder in some circles. Big companies are also aware of this cultural shift, responding with seemingly progressive schemes and initiatives to make consumers feel good about the environmental impact of their choices.


In reality, the shift results from decades of clever marketing campaigns from the companies themselves. If a company is not willing to take responsibility for contributing to climate change, who is? Aligning a consumer’s personal identity with climate change is the perfect tactic to shift the blame - and make you responsible.


What we know


Climate change is a natural phenomenon that has increased at an unnatural rate as a result of human output. The “Greenhouse Effect” is the name given to the process in which the earth’s heat is trapped by the atmosphere, increasing the temperature of the earth’s climate.


“Carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.”


Where big companies are concerned, a recent analysis shows that just twenty companies are responsible for “35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide”. A shocking statistic, especially considering the amount of focus that is put on individual consumers.


Shame campaigns


A campaign entitled "Keep America Beautiful" (sound familiar?) was formed in the 1950s by glass and can companies, and later the famous Coca-Cola joined their ranks. This initiative created an advertisement called "The Crying Indian" in the 1970s, depicting a man (posing as a Native American) crying as a response to witnessing littering. This advertisement was hugely successful, many of the modern comments on reposted versions of the video were written by people who remember watching it firsthand.


In retrospect, it seems clear that the companies behind Keep America Beautiful (which still exists to this day) were merely creating a distraction from their own negative environmental impact. Another campaign which is still making the rounds is the concept of a "Carbon Footprint", made popular by the company British Petroleum. In the early 2000s, the company put out a "Carbon Footprint Calculator", in which individuals could give the details of their daily lives and be shown the impact this has on the planet. This ridiculous initiative served to hold the essential functions of daily human life to the same standard as giant multi-national corporations in terms of climate change impact. The term is still widely known and used, which shows just how pervasive campaigns such as this have been on the psyche of individuals.


Feel-good gestures


Beach Cleanups are a photogenic and seemingly benign method of taking action toward environmental protection. However, their impact is arguably limited. "A cleanup only makes sense when people take photos of everything they find — so we can investigate where it's coming from," says the director of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Although the cleanups themselves have a positive short term impact, they often neglect to address the actual source of trash. The cleanups can distract from the bigger issue by making participants and viewers feel satisfied that the problem has been dealt with.


Companies like CleanSea and 4Ocean do their bit by conducting beach cleanups, selling bracelets so that consumers can financially support their endeavours. However, consumerism is not the answer to environmental issues. If making a purchase is enough to quell climate concerns, then awareness about the source of these concerns has a long way to go.


There is also the growing trend of "Carbon Offsetting", which is when companies pay for other organisations to "reduce or remove carbon" so that they themselves don't have to. Sometimes airlines will give you the opportunity to do this yourself, putting the entire gesture on their customers rather than doing it themselves. Similarly to beach cleanups, this practice does not solve the root problem. This is emotional deception, playing on guilt that consumers have already been taught to have about their own "carbon footprint".


The bottom line


Although living an eco-friendly lifestyle is an important step in terms of inciting a change in attitude, this cannot be where it ends. You can take action by voting for parties that actually support the environment with their policies, as well as putting pressure on companies through boycotts and protests. It is important to recognise the extent of our personal environmental responsibility, and that which we must ask of those in positions of power. Looking at environmental campaigns and the intentions behind them can help us begin to make the change as a society towards protecting the environment.