Don’t Panic! When Eco-anxiety Holds Back Environmental Social Enterprise

Does the climate crisis make shopping an overwhelming task when faced with the abundance of ethical labelling and questionably recyclable packaging in supermarkets? Julia Cass Hebron asks if we can use our eco-anxiety not to paralyse progress – but to drive support for alternative business models that can build a more positive future.

People are anxious about the climate crisis. This much we already know. We only have to go into town on any given Friday to see students protesting en masse for a safer, greener future, only need to look at the recent plastic straw campaign that has driven new legislation, only need to glance at newspaper headlines to see another national government declare a climate emergency.

It’s no wonder we’re worried: in recent years it has become difficult to ignore the growing roar of media attention on the true extent of the damage already done to the planet, and the very plausible possibility that the consequences hurtling our way are unavoidable: dire warnings of a mass extinction already underway, an ice-free Arctic and ecological collapse are becoming unsurprising news notifications. Extinction Rebellion demands governments to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. Greta Thunberg tells us to panic.

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And panic is exactly what we do. A spike in diagnoses of anxiety and trips to the therapist has been directly linked to the rise of ‘eco-anxiety,’ defined as the sense of existential dread around the threats to the natural environment. It’s no wonder: when you’re told by academic papers that societal collapse will occur before some of us are old enough to take out our first mortgage, it’s hard to move on with the day as normal. Greta Thunberg herself revealed she suffered from depression due to the state of the climate when she was younger.

The prospect of climate disaster is enough to make us want to lie in bed and never get up again, safe in the knowledge we’ll all be extinct soon anyway. The magnitude of the situation leaves people feeling powerless to make a difference, stressed and worried about the future: all hallmark symptoms of anxiety and depression, with eco-anxiety facing the added difficulty of being unable to easily resolve the key cause.

No more ‘nice to have’

Nevertheless, the environmental movement continues to push for change. In the last few years, consumer concern for the sustainability and ethics of what we’re buying and eating has surged to such a significant extent, that in 2017 Unilever released a statement by their Chief Marketing and Communications Officer in reaction to a study that highlighted the growth in demand for green products, saying: “This research confirms that sustainability isn’t a nice-to-have for businesses. In fact, it has become an imperative.”

Many of us who suffer with a conscience and are haunted by the shadow of eco-anxiety following us wherever we go will be familiar with these feelings cropping up when we shop. We march to the nearest supermarket armed with our wallet and good intentions, determined to change the world by paying an extra 20p for the palm-oil free peanut butter and the tofu for our meat-free Monday, and suddenly pause in the aisles.

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Should we go for palm-oil free, or the product that is in 100% recyclable packing? Or perhaps the one in a plastic container that was made locally so has fewer carbon emissions but will drift in the sea for the rest of time until it finds its home around a seahorse’s mouth? Or the organic vegetables, which aren’t the Fairtrade ones, but are Rainforest Alliance certified? Should I even be in a chain supermarket or should I be investing in the local farmer’s market with a basket full of artisan produce at three times the usual cost of my shopping? Aren’t all corporations lying to us anyway?

If there was a shop of zero-waste, palm-oil free, organic, non-GMO, Fairtrade, local, seasonal food at affordable prices then this internal dialogue would be a non-issue (one would hope). However, in the absence of such an ethical nirvana, the onus of the decision-making has been placed on the consumer and the result can be paralysing uncertainty.

Indeed, businesses have risen to the occasion in a ‘green wave’ to try and address these very issues, with major high street chains such as Boots replacing all plastic bags with paper, and a rise in new environmental social enterprises – quite often working in collaboration with profit-driven business.

Giki, the ethical shopping app, ranks grocery items according to sustainability and ethics ‘badges’, while Too Good to Go sells off unsold food from cafes and supermarkets at a huge discount at the end of the day. Across the world more small-scale local enterprises work to tackle food waste, littering, nature preservation and better recycling. There’s no shortage of options to get involved and help – but is that empowering consumers or just adding to the overwhelming pressure to ‘do the right thing’?

In addition to our own panic paralysis, the wave of ‘greenwashing’ accusations that have arisen as a result complicate matters further, where companies are accused of misleading the consumer into believing that the company is following more sustainable practices than the reality. Most recently, Starbucks came under fire for introducing a new strawless lid that actually contained more plastic than the straws they aimed to eliminate.

Crying out for innovation

In the light of such alarming cases, how can environmental social enterprises and all businesses which believe in practising corporate social responsibility retain the trust and the investment of their consumers? Is our own eco-anxiety holding back the very green innovation we are crying out for?

Jo Hand, founder of Giki, is familiar with the paralysis that faces consumers. “Fear of what the future holds and whether we can make a difference are emotions we come across regularly,” she says. Surrounded by marketing from mainstream companies every day telling us how to shop and the weight of conflicting information can create a tough challenge for both the consumer tasked with deciding what to purchase, and for social enterprises trying to prove their claims are genuine.

The subsequent sense of disempowerment and fear that individual actions make no real difference to the climate crisis can be a real barrier. Giki tries to tackle this by allowing shoppers to scan a product in a supermarket and see its ethical rating according to up to 13 ‘badges’ of sustainability, ranging from carbon footprint to the sustainability of its palm oil.

Screenshot 2019-10-11 13.50.51Doesn’t having to consider 13 different ethical criteria just demonstrate the exact problem at hand, the weight of information the consumer has to consider? According to Jo, none of the feedback she has received from the app users mentions having too much information. Rather, the ability to have information presented across a range of criteria allows consumers to choose according to their particular concerns – such as cruelty-free or organic products. This suggests an interesting paradox to eco-anxiety: we are overwhelmed by different environmental considerations but attempt to resolve this by adding even more information into the mix.

Perhaps then, the issue is not the quantity of information and certifications, but the quality of it. Given the rise of fake news and mistrust of information from sources previously regarded as unbiased – or with a reassuringly obvious stance, like newspapers and government communications – perhaps part of eco-anxiety is a branch stemming from the growth of consumer and citizen mistrust in larger institutions? That is to say: we’re not confused or overwhelmed by the sustainability labels on products, we just don’t know whether we believe them.

Erinch Sahan is CEO of the World Fair Trade Organization, which supports a global community of social enterprises which are mission-led and ‘put people and planet first’, as their website states.

He explains that the current business model exacerbates the problem of consumer mistrust: “It’s a systemic problem of an economic system that is designed to be obsessed by economic growth and populated by businesses focused on profit maximisation.”

In a profit-driven economy, he says, mainstream businesses will look for the cheapest way to retain consumers, whether that’s marketing themselves as sustainable or something else. “We need to move consumers away from questions like palm oil and plastic use. These are crucial issues but companies can easily tack on a plastic-free product and still do many things that are damaging the planet.”

So how do we tackle this as consumers anxious about minimising our impact? For Erinch, the key is for mission-driven social enterprises to reach the eco-anxious population and present a new economic system that prioritises people and planet over profit. “Incremental changes won’t change our planet,” he says.

Missing the point

This raises the arguably paradoxical consumer problem: one of the key ways to reduce individual carbon footprint is to reduce how much we consume overall. Does promoting investment in social enterprise and ethical consumption risk missing the point of how we can best help the environment? Can we really shop our way to sustainability?

SDG 12, one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations and adopted by all its member states in 2015, focuses on Sustainable Consumption and Production. It lists certain necessary targets for this to be achieved, including significant reduction in waste and sustainable procurement, and asks that ‘people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles’. But when the current levels of overproduction and overconsumption are so high – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, a third of all food produced for humans each year is wasted – the notion that individual consumerism can contribute to the achievement of a more circular economy before 2030 is surprising.

“It’s a systemic problem of an economic system obsessed by economic growth and populated by businesses focused on profit maximisation.”

Erinch says it’s inevitable that all consumption carries a carbon footprint. What we can do is maximise the value of each pound we spend, ensuring we maximise the social impact and minimise the environmental impact of our purchasing decisions. For example, by spending money on social enterprises that are labour-intensive and provide employment to more people – quite often with a lower carbon footprint in the process – we support local economies and divert consumers away from the profit-driven corporations. He points out the example of hand-woven crafts in Sri Lanka that require more people to produce but carry a lower carbon footprint than mass-produced woven products from more local centres in Europe.

How do we reconcile this with the use of apps like Giki, which at their heart promote consumers to exercise their individual power to make a change and change their community incrementally? If all our agonising about plastic-free and locally-sourced products isn’t sufficient for meaningful change until the system changes, then doesn’t this just reinforce the fundamental fear of the eco-anxious shopper that whatever we buy is wrong?

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Perhaps the two approaches to sustainable shopping: consumer-driven choices, and work to change the business system, are not so different. Both Jo and Erinch agree that consumers should not resign themselves to a world of environmental exploitation and inequality, but instead push for more information from both mainstream businesses and social enterprises about their use of profits. Apps like Giki are perfectly positioned to get consumers thinking and asking the right questions about the brands they buy from: What kind of businesses do we want to support in the future, and is this business going to do the right thing for people and planet when it’s not in the public spotlight?

This mindful method of consumption is two-sided: not only should consumers be prepared to look into the business ethics of the companies they shop from, but purchase considerately by re-evaluating their approach to shopping. Profit-driven companies also work to create a demand for products and services that are far from essential. Between 2000 and 2014, the quantity of clothes sold rose 60% but this doesn’t indicate an increased use, only an increased waste. At the same time as changing the economic system, we must also address a consumerist culture that buys into the year-long parade of artificial must-haves presented to us by companies, and prove that what is profitable to businesses is not to focus simply on profit.

Knowledge that our current business paradigm does not support a sustainable future should not, then, be a cause for consumer paralysis and disempowerment, but rather an opportunity to push for alternative models that do support the future we want. Perhaps we could all do with a healthy dose of eco-anxiety, to keep the climate collapse away another day.

Erinch Sahan will be speaking at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

About the author: Julia Cass Hebron is the founder of WILD Magazine and now a DICE Young Storymaker – one of fourteen young journalists recruited by Pioneers Post and the British Council from six countries to report on social and creative enterprise. 

This article was originally published on Pioneers Post as Part of the DICE scheme in collaboration with the British Council.

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