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Plastic, paper, or tote — your choice could save or destroy the planet!

Who is really at fault for our increasing carbon footprint — the consumer or the market?
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BEVERLY TENG/THE VARSITY
BEVERLY TENG/THE VARSITY

The case for personal responsibility in the face of the climate crisis has gained a significant amount of mainstream attention over the last few years. However, it is the concept of eco-conscious consumerism, as opposed to scientific solutions to the crisis, that plays into personal consumer guilt. And this leaves many of us feeling responsible for the demise of our planet, despite our attempts to change our habits for the better.

This sense of guilt that has finally gotten the best of us mundane consumers has, subsequently, made the word ‘sustainability’ a part of everyone’s vocabulary. It has manifested itself into a buzzword — which now defines a whole new subset of the market that targets the “smart consumer” who seeks an improved environment. But with this new wave of sustainability, what really becomes of the purchasing habits of people, and how does capitalism play into this seemingly anti-capitalist fad?

Eco-consciousness has emerged as something that can be reached through purchasing alone. Suggesting that by buying the right coffee cup, or ethically sourced cocoa, or swapping a plastic carrier bag for a tote bag, a consumer is actually able to ethically participate in the capitalist system that has gotten us into the crisis in the first place. There is an obvious contradiction within the whole sustainability sector of the market; it reveals that we are all succumbing to the illusion of the collective good because there is actually a limitation on taking part in active sustainability.

From sleek metal straws to reusable cutlery sets, these products aim to replace their easily disposable counterparts and play into the popularized idea of environmental sustainability and the need for individual environmental consciousness. Though the use of such products does promote a lifestyle that focuses on mindful consumption, the harmful culture of consumption remains, because companies and brands have started to capitalize on the concept of mindful living.

Although we do have a certain amount of personal accountability for the crisis, solutions that depend on individual contributions to eventually lead to massive collective effort cannot be the salvation of humanity’s frighteningly growing carbon footprint.

We would like to believe that using a KeepCup when we stop at Starbucks before class, or a Baggu when we go to Shoppers Drug Mart will not only make us feel good as conscious consumers, but that it will also contribute to the ultimate end of the plastic bag and coffee cup industry. Frankly, a single reusable cup or bag will not end deforestation or save the turtles, but small ripples do at times turn into big waves of change. This dilemma is exactly what makes sustainability and ethical consumerism a difficult practice to navigate when we are constantly being sold the solution from the creators of the problem. 

Simply put, consumerism functions on the idea that we, the consumers, will always be needing, wanting, and purchasing new things. Therefore, the market plays into this want and will inevitably provide us with the things that we need, but it continues to reinforce the misleading notion that we are in control of our choices as consumers.

This interesting cycle of constant need for things plays more perfectly into the issue of sustainability than one would expect, and it only takes one of many examples to demonstrate this. A Google search of the term “zero-waste” pulls up at least a link or two to online stores and retail outlets that market for essentials that will supposedly help solve our ever-growing over-consumption.

In the end, choosing to compromise convenience for the sake of a less waste-infested Earth or a clearer conscience is the least that can be done when the biggest contributors — read: manufacturing-dependent companies — choose not to. A balanced and sustainable solution to the cycle of seemingly futile efforts will always require the compromise of comfort.