Consumer shaming distracts from the core problem

by | 10 Jan 2020 | Opinion

Sigh. There we go again. This time, it is Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of clothing giant H&M who’s reprimanding the climate movement.

“A pattern of shaming that initially targeted air travelers rapidly spreads into other industries. Inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, millions of people worldwide take the streets to express their dissatisfaction about what they often describe as an acute climate crisis. They always call to stop things and to consume less.”

But consumers should not be guilt-tripped, Persson argues. Above all, the consumer should continue to consume and in doing so make the economy continue to grow. Only economic growth can save us!, he claims. He doesn’t deny the climate problem, and instead pretends industry will solve it with only technological innovation, alternative raw materials and cleaner energy. Period. We can only be blunt: That message is ignorant of aviation’s rampant growth and already substantial climate impact. The growth overwhelms the benefits those advances would otherwise bring.

It seems there is no climate movement critic who’s not talking about flying (or more so: who aims to tackle the climate movement’s concerns about flying). As one of the initiators of Zomer Zonder Vliegen (Summer Without Flying), an awareness-raising campaign on the climate impact of aviation, every time my ears are burning, so they are now.

What’s the deal with that ongoing reproach that we mainly want to make people feeling guilty and shame consumers?

With Summer Without Flying, guilt is not what we are talking about and we are not that much into that #flygskam hashtag. Don’t shoot the piano player: the red herring about guilt and consumer shaming just distracts from the core problem, and that is that our Western consumption model – in which flying is prominent – is not sustainable. It is not at all about the consumer’s guilty conscience, it is all about the CEO’s guilty neglect.

Imagine a doctor advising a patient he needs to change his diet or exercise more. Are you going to blame the doctor for making the patient feel guilty?

Not at all, the doctor mainly wants the patient to discover the benefits of thaton physical and mental health and thus on quality of life. Our messaging about flying less and consuming less (or consumingdifferently) makes similar sense for the well being of everyone on Earth, and is not at all about making change by shaming.

Even the aviation sector itself is totally unable to demonstrate that its total CO2 emissions can decrease significantly in the upcoming decades, under its planned growth. The H&M CEO emphasises, “Let us continue to focus on climate issues, while at the same time having an open discussion about what the real solution is”. Read that as: economic growth is King, continue to fly and continue to consume.

How can he think “an open discussion about what the solution is” would be productive, while believing that we will solve the problems with the same mindset that created the problem in the first place?

This call from the clothing boss adds nothing new to the debate over flying. There can only be an open discussion if its participants also dare to question the foundations of the system. A world with less aviation, with a different level of consumption, and stripped of blind belief in the mantra of economic growth –– is that really such an absurd idea?

Article by Toby Lauwerier, Zomer Zonder Vliegen


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