This Earth Month... buy more stuff?!
We're about to be bombarded with messaging about corporate climate initiatives. We'll have the chance to buy merch to "support" the planet. And we'll be incentivized to spend more so that a small portion can be donated to organizations fighting climate change.
As you might expect, it's all marketing. Earth Month and Earth Day seem to have become another excuse for a sale.
But we miss a key issue in our fight for change if we stop at the "greedy corporation" critique. In this short dispatch, I compare Panasonic's #CreateTodayEnrichTomorrow campaign to Parks Project's mission to do good, and I advocate for a systems-level critique that can penetrate do-good messaging to get to the heart of the problem.
Panasonic is currently running a commercial about climate change starring Michael Phelps. Phelps delivers a stilted and, in my humble opinion, wholly uninspiring pep talk about the need for action now when it comes to averting the climate crisis.
“Everything we know, everything we love, may well be at risk. The time for action is now.”
The commercial never mentions Panasonic, of course. The brand’s black and white logo is simply the final frame of the ad.
The first few times I saw this ad, I wasn’t paying much attention. I didn’t even notice who paid for this 31-word, 30-second manifesto, complete with sweeping landscapes and dramatic music. Eventually, though, I got the message.
Panasonic makes televisions, hair dryers, microwaves, and all sorts of other consumer electronics. To manufacture any consumer electronics product, you need raw materials like copper, lithium, silica sand, cobalt, gold, silver, and zinc. And that means you need to extract these materials from the planet, including in countries with abysmal labor conditions.
Consumer electronics also contain various plastics. Plastics are typically made from crude oil or natural gas, according to British Plastics Federation’s Plastipedia. And not only are traditional plastics made from nonrenewable resources, but they famously take ages to break down in the environment after they’re discarded.
Panasonic would love for us to know about its #GreenImpact and #CreateTodayEnrichTomorrow initiatives. Those initiatives include working toward net-zero carbon emission factories, producing more solar power products to convert home energy use away from fossil fuels, and sell more electric vehicle batteries to make us less reliant on gas.
And hey, cool. I like the idea of transforming factories, converting to solar, and going EV.
But there seem to be some glaring omissions from Panasonic's #GreenImpact efforts.
Panasonic doesn’t mention helping consumers buy fewer electronics products by extending the life of their devices.
I didn’t see any mention of eliminating rare earth minerals or oil-based plastics from its manufacturing processes. And there was no mention of improving workers’ living conditions in countries where Panasonic’s factories are located—countries that will be hit the hardest by climate change thanks to the West’s extractive economies.
In my estimation, Panasonic’s actual climate crisis plan is woefully lacking in real change. And, at the same time, even incremental change can be an improvement from the status quo. It’s not in Panasonic’s best interest to get consumers to buy fewer electronics, and even with top-notch R&D, eliminating rare earth minerals from its products might be decades in the future.
Panasonic is trying to walk a well-trodden, razor-thin line between profits and messaging.
On one hand, they want you to know they take climate change seriously. I mean, look at Michael Phelp’s face. That’s serious.
But on the other hand, they want you to know they’ll keep making cheap consumer electronics that you can buy to your heart’s content.
All month long, we’ll be bombarded with similar messaging. There will be Earth Month and Earth Day sales. There will be new products to buy emblazoned with cute images of the planet, trees, or animals. We’ll have the chance to buy more so that a percentage of our purchase can be donated to organizations fighting climate change.
It’s nothing new.
And it’s just one example of how our values are hijacked to support shareholder value over substantive change.
One critique of this type of marketing campaign is what I’ll call the “greedy corporation” critique. This critique invites us to see a company like Panasonic as an ethically inferior player. We can easily parse the ways in which their walk doesn’t match their talk. And to borrow a metaphor from David Graeber, we learn to see companies like this as “pillagers” stealing from our common good.
The “greedy corporation” critique is popular among those who identify with conscious capitalism, as popularized by Whole Foods founder John Mackey. It’s also popular with those who endeavor toward conscious consumption. The consciously capitalist enterprise can use it as positioning—showing how its manufacturing and labor practices are different from those greedy corporations. The conscious consumer can shop (and shop, and shop) with the consciously capitalist enterprise and feel like the very act of shopping is morally virtuous.
Take, for instance, the made-for-Instagram company, Parks Project. Parks Project produces vintage-inspired t-shirts, pullovers, and accessories with illustrations of our national parks and monuments. In 2021, they donated an impressive $2 million to support sustainability projects in the National Park system.
Marketing for Parks Project is rooted firmly in the company’s stated mission. Their recent “B Corp Certification” is featured prominently on the website. They offer a report on how their donations are impacting Yellowstone about halfway down their homepage.
But the real message is clear: buy stuff. The company features regular “drops” of new merch, often featuring crossovers with others brands like the recent New Balance drop. There’s a certain “get it before it’s gone” vibe with new designs.
Even the “do good” messaging invokes the white colonialist myth of the untouched wilderness. And after poking around the website, albeit not exhaustively, I couldn’t find anything about how the company redistributes profits to indigenous communities or their efforts to reclaim stolen lands and restore its traditional stewardship.
Update: I looked a little harder. The website lists projects at two parks, Grand Canyon and Glacier, that engage with native culture. Both projects are filtered through the park conservancies, which are independent non-profits run by boards of directors and staff. In the bios for Glacier National Park Conservancy board members and staff, only 2 board members are citizens of recognized tribes, while no staff members are.
In this way, Parks Project is in the same camp as other conscious consumer brands like Everlane, Outdoor Voices, and Bombas. When selling more and more stuff is the goal, it’s hard to argue that companies are driven by a mission for sustainability or social responsibility.
The “greedy corporation” critique scapegoats some companies to allow other profit-driven companies to thrive, at least in a certain market. What this critique misses is that it’s the system and not individual companies that drive unsustainable, exploitative, and extractive business practices.
Here’s the thing: I like the products that Everlane, Outdoor Voices, Bombas, and, yes, Parks Project make. I’d rather buy from them than stock up on tees and sports bras from Target. But the reason why I like them is just brand strategy and marketing. I am their target customer, and they’ve succeeded in catching my eye. And even then, I’m attracted less to specific products and more to a general aesthetic that I’ve learned to associate with so-called conscious consumption. Deciding that I “like” a sweater from Everlane or a muscle tee from Parks Project isn’t so much an individual preference as it is the result of aligning with the tastes of companies like these.
The truth is that, yes, I would rather buy from a company that is at least considering how it can have a smaller impact on people and the planet. Insofar as these companies make life a little better for the people who work in their factories or even their home offices, I think that’s a good choice.
But are my consumption preferences meaningfully different from a systems perspective? No, they sure aren’t. Pretending otherwise is to engage in “interpassivity”—or, allowing perfectly status quo actions to stand in for real advocacy or agitation. Instead of acting or advocating for green policies, I can let companies like Panasonic or Parks Project perform those activities for me with their messaging, if not in actual fact. Not only do I personally feel better, but I get a t-shirt with a logo that signals my virtuous interpassivity to everyone who sees it.
While I won’t go so far as to say that all companies are morally equivalent, I will say that the system they operate in will always trend toward decisions that harm the many to benefit the few.
And without an overall critique of the system, we will continue to be complicit in, as Mark Fisher put it, “planetary networks of oppression.” To engage this system critique, he argues, what we must keep in mind “is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.”
That includes our cooperation as consumers, as I’ve explained here. But it also includes how we cooperate through the decisions we make as freelancers, consultants, and small business owners. I don’t point this out to be a Debbie Downer. I point it out so that we can consider all of our choices from a systems perspective.
Running a small business doesn’t automatically mean your decisions are above reproach. Claiming a higher purpose or driving why doesn’t guarantee the moral superiority of your venture. It doesn’t even make your venture more likely to “do good.”
Living, working, and consuming in this system is always a compromise.
Sometimes, we’ll need to make choices that continue to introduce negative externalities into the system. But sometimes, we’ll have the chance to make a radical decision that defies the very logic of the system.