By Hinnerk Frech
Shortly before Christmas a few German media outlets discussed the problematic of wrapping paper in terms of their negative impact on the environment(1). While not directly linked to climate change, this example made me ask myself: Are there even any products left that are not potentially damaging to the climate and the environment? Almost on a daily basis we as consumers see headlines confronting us with the sad reality of the negative impact of the products we consume. Plastic packaging everywhere – threatening the oceans and its wildlife. Our vegetables and fruits – still predominantly grown under the frequent use of chemicals and travelling around the globe: polluting, damaging, sometimes poisoning. Our meat: its production consumes way too much agricultural land, water and other resources. Production and transport causing pollution again. Our travelling habits – flying and cars as a major factor of global warming. Most of us are probably aware of all this, some might be tired of reading it.
Yet, things barely seem to change. Day by day we are surrounded by bad options in regards to climate and environmental friendly consumption. For every time we go to shop our groceries, we leave the store with the whole world united in our shopping bag. Covered in plastic. Rightly so, experts in the public debates are reminding us of our responsibility to pay attention to a climate friendly style of living. But, most of us do not seem to want that. The enormous supply of climate damagers and killers suggests that there is a demand for them and we all just don’t care. The price of climate and environment friendly products are often high – the supply for them often relatively limited. The majority of products in an average Western European supermarket are not local or regional, often barely national. Neither are they ecological or Fair Trade in too many cases. And climate-friendliness is, in practice, barely paid attention to. So, is it us, the consumers that are at fault here? Us, that continue to make the wrong choices because we often prefer the cheap and problematic product over the more expensive, more sustainable solution? That is surely one side of the coin. But is it the decisive one?
For that, let us take a look at Germany. A study from the German University of Göttingen(2) (on German consumer’s attitudes) concludes, that around 62% of the population are of the opinion, that it is important to buy climate friendly products. 65% of the study’s participants share that the opinion, that consuming local products is important. Moreover, according to this study, the majority would accept higher prices for better products.
Further, the biennial study of the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt)(3) about German consumer consciousness presents an interesting statistical picture. A staggering 91% of the participants would support more regulations of the market in order to protect the climate. The same percentage would support a ban of products that are climate damaging. A vast majority would support a tax on these products and the stop of subsidies going to products that are damaging climate and environment. The picture that these two studies paint is an interesting one: The demand for climate and environment friendly products seems to be there – yet the supply is limited or not affordable for many. And here, the responsibility goes beyond the individual to the governments. If humankind is serious about limiting the effects of climate change, we cannot only rely on the responsibility of the individual. As long as a flight from Berlin to Copenhagen is available from 10€ while the regular train ticket is priced above 100€, many consumers will, through their income, be forced to choose the unsustainable option. The same holds for groceries and countless other products. Often, transparency about a product’s impact is lacking completely. As a consumer, we are asked to keep track of fair trade, ecological products, climate friendly products, sustainable products, environment-friendly products, regional products and so on and so forth. The complexity of this task is enormous and as an individual one can simply not keep track of the impact of every single consumed product. Instead, governments all around the world need to step up and support climate-friendly solutions.
At least in Germany, the considerable shares of the population seem ready to support climate-friendly policy and to consume climate-friendly products. Since, once again in history, supply and demand do not seem to work out perfectly, governments need to introduce (higher) taxes on flying, cars and climate-damaging products in general. Instead, and for instance through these taxes, alternative solutions such as public transport and sustainable products should be supported. Government policy has to increase the transparency of products so that we as consumers can make actual, well-informed choices in order to make the impact that is demanded of us.
And not at least governments need to deal with climate-scandals seriously – companies such as Volkswagen in the Diesel affair(4) need to take the consequences of their damaging behaviour.
Rigid policy to reduce pollution is needed. And so much more. The data presented in the 2018 report of the German Environment Agency speaks a clear language: We see tiny improvements in many areas – but backslides in others in terms of the government’s and international climate goals. To reach those – often rather unambitious – goals, the effort has to be increased dramatically. Here it is most definitely not the individual consumer who is responsible – but the government. Not only the German government has to take the initiative, this is something – and I am only repeating countless other opinions and articles and research – that has to happen internationally and strongly coordinated. Luckily, a broad and increasingly powerful movement of the young generation around the Swede Greta Thunberg and many of her fellow activists has understood this message. In times where the gap between attitudes and actions is huge, especially in politics, we can only hope that the Friday for Future movement will have the political success it deserves – and which we all desperately need.
1. For instance: Süddeutsche Zeitung – Aufreißen und wegwerfen, ganz ohne schlechtes Gewissen [Accessed 23.01.2019]
4. The Dieselaffäre [Diesel affair] refers to the manipulation of software during the test of cars. Before approval for the market, the manipulated software showed a significantly lower pollutant emission than the cars actually had in day-to-day use. In many instances, the cars actually violated EU-threshold values but car firms such as Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz and Audi managed to cheat on the authorities using the manipulated testing software.
About the author
Hinnerk Frech, 21, is studying International Social Sciences at Roskilde Universitet, Denmark. He is interested in a variety of different issues from philosophical discussions in the social sciences to the influence of social networks or smart homes on society, and enjoys writing about these issues and discussing them.