What does Earth Law Mean for Consumerism?
Beyond buying eco-friendly products, by Charles Ryan
Consumption helps drive environmental destruction, accounting for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions.
While some of us are fortunate enough to be able to choose the source of our coffee beans and attend farmers markets and have started to make the connection between consumerism and the environmental challenges we face today, many consumers have little information in terms of how our daily behavior affects the vitality of the environment.
Over the past two decades, a new era of consumerism has emerged. Green consumerism offers a way to incorporate our political and social values into our patterns of consumption. It also opens up a space for collaboration where individuals, companies and local and federal governments can work together to improve the environment for everyone.
Consumption as civic duty
For centuries, consumption has been a topic of conversation. In Ancient Greece, Plato condemned consumption as a threat to the human soul. [i] In many European states during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, consumption was considered a waste of money that could have been used towards local resources.[ii] And in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote that humans consistently garner more items in their life because the accumulation of such objects allows for life to be “grand and beautiful and noble.”[iii]
However, it was really not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries with William Stanley Jevons’ Theory of Political Economy, that people began considering the role of the consumer in determining the value of goods and services in the economy.[iv] Such revelations led economists to adjust their frameworks for understanding national strength and consider the pivotal role of demand in the economy. Furthermore, these developments led to consumers, reformers and workers realizing their power to make changes to the economy.
As the economy was changing, so was the standard of living in many countries and subsequently the needs and desires of their citizens. For example, in 1871 in Sheffield, England, citizens launched a Water Consumer’s Association in protest of taxes on water usage. The rising standard of living in England allowed for the transformation of luxuries like baths into necessities[v]. The citizens of Sheffield, in response to these changes, protested the imposition of taxes on how much water they could use on the grounds that bathing was a necessity of daily life. Many more consumer organizations sprouted up in this era as well. However, it was the period prior to the First World War that really gave rise to the expansion of consumer cooperatives. In the early 20th Century in England, most households were part of consumer organizations and in Germany and France the consumer organizations held over a million members.[vi]
The growth of these organizations led to the emergence of ethical consumerism. In the United States, the National Consumers League, led by Florence Kelley, utilized the power of their 15,000 members’ purses “to target sweatshops and reward businesses that offered decent working conditions and a minimum wage.”[vii] The League’s first focus was on the poor, unregulated working conditions in America. Since then, they have fought against child labor, protected consumers from internet fraud and advocated for the right to healthy food.
The Water Consumers’ Association, The Women’s Cooperative Guild, and the National Consumers League all represented major shifts towards an understanding of consumption as an opportunity for citizens to use their role in the market to improve the world around them.
Our new civic duty to be green
The idea of the “citizen-consumer” utilizing their role in the economy to fight for the betterment of all society has continued to be realized, most recently, in movements promoting environmental consumerism. Rising concern regarding environmental destruction has led to an increase in demand for eco-friendly products.
According to a Nielsen survey from 2014, 55% of global consumers from 60 countries are willing to pay more for goods that have a positive social and environmental impact.[viii] Furthermore, the frequency with which global leaders have begun to speak up about the urgency of environmental issues has added to the increased environmental awareness of today’s society.
For instance, in 2015, the former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon stated in remarks in the Vatican that “we have a profound moral responsibility to protect the fragile web of life on this Earth.”[ix] And in September of last year, Pope Francis released a statement critiquing society’s dismissal of the environmental impacts of our behavior: “Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources and our greed for limitless profit in markets — all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.”[x]
The sense of duty to protect the natural environment that has followed these changes is perhaps best noted by consumers’ increased willingness to use their position to enact pressure on companies to adopt environmentally friendly behavior. For example, in an effort to end the destructive palm oil production in Indonesia, advocates in Singapore partnered with the non-governmental organizations and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs in July of 2015 to launch the “We Breathe What We Buy” campaign. The initiative sought to collect pledges from consumers to support companies who do not use fire to clear land for palm oil production. Earlier this year, the Singapore Times published an article stating that 17 food and beverage companies have committed to only sourcing sustainable palm oil.[xi] Other similar initiatives bringing individuals and other organizations together have also led to successes such as the activist group SumofUS’s efforts in encouraging McDonald’s to ban plastic straws worldwide. McDonald’s announced in March of 2018 that it would end the distribution of plastic straws in the U.K, however, the fight for similar changes in the U.S is still ongoing.[xii]
How laws can change consumer behavior
While there is substantial demand for eco-friendly products, there is still a need for organizations and governments to organize the interest in green products to unlock its collective power and to continue to make changes to the marketplace. Also, governments and legal institutions in particular have a unique responsibility to ensure that the goods sold in the eco-friendly category are in fact living up to their claims of having a positive impact on the environment. Although many consumer-friendly apps and websites like Good Guide have emerged as resources for consumers to research the true environmental impacts of products, there is still a role for legal and governmental institutions to play as well.
In historical terms, it would not be unusual for a government to influence individual consumer habits. In the United States during the post war era, companies framed consumption as a civic responsibility to further the country’s economic expansion. In other instances, governments have even restricted the consumption of goods. For example, Britain imposed rations for citizens from 1940 to 1954. There have also been periods where governments made the consumption of certain goods compulsory. During the 1600’s in England, in response to the expansion of the markets for linen and other new textiles, parliament passed two Acts limiting the importation of linen and requiring that all corpses be buried in wool as a way of preserving the success of the woolen industry in England.[xiii]
There are numerous examples of governments implementing laws and reforms to guide the economic activity of the country. In the context of today’s environmental crisis, when 60% greenhouse gas emissions are caused by consumption, there is an urgent need for governmental and legal entities to impose laws to better align consumption behavior with the world’s ecological interests. And to implement reforms that aid consumers, organizations and companies in their ongoing efforts to help the environment.
Earth Law provides a legal framework for both efforts.
What impact Earth Law would have
The current environmental crisis requires collective action to scale back greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a worldwide initiative to reeducate people about the connection between individual behavior and the environment, to ensure that the lives of the world’s ecosystems and societies are never so out of sync again.
Earth Law counters the accepted view that nature is merely a resource to be used for economic gain by arguing that nature has inherent rights separate from its utility to humans. Earth Law says that it should be recognized that nature has the same rights given to people and corporations. The current system maintains an environmental protection regime reliant upon people proving that their legal rights as humans are affected by the environmental damage they want the law to stop. The effect of this is a system that only protects nature when it benefits humans or corporations and therefore prioritizes economic outcomes over ecological consequences.
This understanding of nature as solely a resource for human development has contributed to the disconnect between pursuits that are valued by people such as buying a new car or taking a vacation, and the types of behavior that reflect the interests of the environment. Earth Law has the potential to bridge this divide by structuring society so that all human behavior — consumer habits, construction projects, transportation — reflect the interests of humans as well as the interests of the environment.
In the context of consumerism, Earth Law would serve the environmentally conscious consumer by making it easier for them to consume in a manner that reflects the way they value the environment. Earth Law would remove products that yield severe consequences for the environment and thereby enact pressure on producers to create products that reflect consumers’ environmental values. An example of this is Hawaii’s recent ban of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate which are linked to the destruction of the state’s coral reefs.[xiv] By forcing producers to remove two chemicals from their products, Hawaii has protected one of the world’s most important ecosystems.
Environmentally conscious consumerism is by no means the solution to the present environmental crisis, but it does give people an opportunity to utilize their role as consumers to inform businesses of the values that they wish to see represented in the goods they consume. Together, Earth Law and environmental consumerism represent the institutional and social mechanisms to reeducate people and corporations about their role in the world and the environmental consequences of their decisions. Earth Law reorients the legal framework for making decisions that affect the environment. Environmental consumerism exemplifies people’s collective power to make an impact and redefines consumerism in the context of a new era of consumer and corporate engagement.
Want to help?
Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law by:
· Staying informed of Earth Law Center
· Volunteering with ELC
· Supporting ELC