This is why Environmental Problems Should be Blamed on Consumers.

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Both consumers and corporations are to blame for environmental problems; however, the burden of addressing environmental problems rests on the shoulders of citizens and consumers.

Consumers are to blame for environmental problems because a consumer can choose—or refuse—to buy a product or a service from a company that creates it.

Consumers are also blamed because they can vote for—or against—laws and policies that prevent companies from creating environmental problems in the first place.

Although companies have the power to change their practices by making a different choice, in most cases, companies choose to create products consumers will buy, regardless of whether or not they cause environmental problems.

Thus, citizens and consumers are often blamed for environmental problems because they do not adequately demand that their political leaders pass laws to stop them, nor do they demand that companies change their practices.

Addressing environmental problems will remain the responsibility of citizens and consumers until a majority of people in the market stop buying products or services from companies that cause these problems. Or, until consumers convince their political leaders to require companies to take responsibility from the outset and prevent or avoid creating environmental problems.

As consumers, we vote for the laws and policies that tell corporations what they can and cannot do. And, right now, citizens and consumers mostly tell corporations that they can do whatever they want as long as they keep providing consumers with the products they want, even when the production causes environmental problems.

Although the B Corporation movement is attempting to change corporate culture, companies are not yet legally required to create products or services that are environmentally friendly, moral, or ethical.

When a consumer makes the choice to purchase a product or a service from a company that has a negative impact on the natural environment, they are literally voting with their dollars to support those companies.

A citizen or consumer can’t force a company to stop causing environmental problems until they convince their political representatives to enact laws and policies that tell companies they can no longer cause them.

I’ll use the example of plastic over compostable and biodegradable materials to illustrate, with an emphasis on plastic versus biodegradable bags:

A consumer has the ability to make the choice to only buy products that come in compostable packaging or bags (biodegradable), or to buy products that have no packaging at all. But, there is no nationwide law that prevents a company from making plastic or nonbiodegradable packaging.

For this reason, citizens and consumers have to contend with the environmental problem of plastic litter on land, in our streams, rivers, and oceans even though companies have the power to make the choice to stop selling them voluntarily. Companies do not usually make voluntary decisions to do good, hence the need for citizens and consumers to demand the passage of laws and policies that tell companies to be environmentally responsible.

In those cases where no law or policy exists, a consumer can choose to refuse plastic bags at the store, and then opt for biodegradable paper bags instead. In turn, a consumer can take even more responsibility and bring their own reusable bag so that they are not using paper or plastic. These are immediate actions citizens and consumers take to address environmental problems.

A wiser approach for a consumer would be to shift the responsibility to corporations. Consumers and citizens can do this through the passage of laws and policies that prevent companies from creating and selling plastic bags or nonbiodegradable packaging that becomes the environmental problem that the consumers ultimately have to pay for—through taxes—after a company has already made its profit.

For example, consumers have worked with fellow citizens to convince their political representatives to pass laws and policies that ban the use of plastic bags, or to implement a “disposable bag fee” to dissuade their use. Boulder, Colorado passed a disposable bag fee and Portland, Oregon has banned plastic bags altogether. By doing so, consumers in these two cities have shifted the burden of responsibility back to corporations.

The companies that once produced plastic bags, or disposable bags for either city are now forced to make a new choice due to consumer and citizen demand—sell biodegradable or reusable bags or leave the market altogether.

Ultimately, consumers will continue to be blamed for environmental problems until they make one of two decisions:

1. Stop buying products or services from companies that are causing environmental problems.

2. Call, write, and persuade their political representatives to pass laws and policies that protect the environment for everyone, while shifting the burden to companies.

However, as citizens in a liberal democracy, it will always be the responsibility of consumers and citizens to remain vigilant and to continuously demand new laws and policies that compel corporations to change their practices. It will always be the responsibility of consumers and citizens to demand products and services from companies that do not harm the natural environment or wildlife.

It only takes a few years of apathy to reverse course in a democracy, so the blame will always rest with citizens and consumers over companies when it comes to environmental problems.

~

Author: Dr. Matthew Wilburn King
Image: Walmart/Flickr
Editor: Leah Sugerman
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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Dr. Matthew King

Dr. Matthew Wilburn King is an American author, international consultant, and “creative” residing in Boulder, Colorado. Matthew’s ultimate purpose in life is to live, love and learn. He has two decades of experience conducting research and development, leading projects, writing and delivering strategies in the fields of environmental governance, sustainable development, and social entrepreneurship. He’s worked for government, universities, non-profits and the private sector. He consults and advises leaders worldwide.

Matthew has been to every Continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica, completed expeditions to over 30 countries, lived in five and studied and conducted research in four—completing his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge.

He has published academic and popular literature for the Journal of Biological Conservation, Marine Policy Journal, Earth Island Journal, World Watch Institute, U.N. Environment Program, U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, One Earth Future Foundation, U.S. Department of State, NOAA Research, Boulder Magazine, Mantra Magazine Yoga + Health, among others, as well as given talks around the world. He was 1/365 Authors selected to contribute to Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet alongside Dr. Jane Goodall, Nelson Mandela, The 14th Dalai Lama, Stephen Hawking, Maya Angelou, Justin Trudeau, and others.

He is a former US Presidential Management Fellow, a Founding Member of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, a post-graduate Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Kinship Conservation Fellow, and a Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He is the Founder, President, and Chairman of the COMMON Foundation, serving people, planet, and peace. His biggest journey, thus far, has been his current one, from head to heart. You can find him here at COMMON Foundation, King’s Newsletter, King’s Creations, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Amazon Author Profile

Verlo Hootchew Oct 5, 2018 5:39am

hemp bags?

Dr. Matthew King Aug 1, 2018 10:10pm

Bud Wilson, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Dr. Matthew King Aug 1, 2018 10:09pm

Peter Gyulay, Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for reading, I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Dr. Matthew King Aug 1, 2018 10:09pm

Art Haberland, Thank you for your comments and for reading, I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Dr. Matthew King Aug 1, 2018 10:08pm

Richard and Bud, thank you both for reading and for the lively discussion around the topic. I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Peter Gyulay Apr 26, 2018 1:58am

I think this article highlights well the interplay of individual choice and governance which impact on the environment. I think ideally there would be strict laws that prevent any type of harm occuring to the natural world. We need to learn to subjugate our desires and whims to the needs of the planet.

Richard Josephson Sep 18, 2017 2:36pm

Bud Wilson I am afraid you missed my point, Bud. It is that the inconvenience of washing a bag and drying it can keep us away from paper. Moreover, when shot, mine don't end up in landfills, but poof in a flame. I have an upcomming article on this: "For Love of Plastic." Please give it a read on "Elephant."

Bud Wilson Sep 18, 2017 2:28pm

Matthew, Thanks for this article pointing out where environmental "responsibility" lies. Your article certainly helps many to connect the dots across the "eco-system - of the so called free market". There are several more issues that need to be raised, and I'm sure you'll agree - first among them is Corporate Personhood which grants more rights and fewer liabilities to companies than people...second, The concept of "externalitlies" on a company balance sheet - and ultimately the transformation of corporate cultures will depend upon the consciousness of the CEO's and Boards of Directors. When core values of environmental responsibility trump profits, we may have an opportunity to systemically change our trajectory of unconscious consumerism and bad behavior on the part of irresponsible companies. Personal transformation at the level of the CEO will be required before we have societal transformation... yes, educated consumers can help! See Paul Hawkin's early writings in The Ecology of Commerce - he recommends withdrawing Corporate Charters the minute their behavior in any given community is deemed harmful to the well being of the whole!

Bud Wilson Sep 18, 2017 2:18pm

Richard - is convenience worth this? ... the insideous nature of plastic is destroying our drinking water ( you bet it has a lot of "life" left in it when it remains in our land fills and oceans : see: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals

Art Haberland Sep 6, 2017 9:07pm

Yes and No. While those with a bit more currency can throw their money towards companies that are friendly to the environment, people living poverity, or closer to that edge do not. For every person shopping whole foods, there are probably a thousand shopping walmart, and the cheaper stuff comes in bad packaging. Sadly if you have a family of 4 and you are barely making it (and that is a lot of people) you buy the cheapest stuff you can get. As for Richard's comment. I prefer plastic bags for one reason, I am too cheap up buy expensive bags for the sole purpose of throwing them out. I do not make a whole lot of trash (more recycling than trash really) and the small grocery bags handle my trash needs perfectly and being thinner and weaker than the "big boy iron sack" trash bags at the store where you can literally stuff 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound back, probably disintergrate faster.

Richard Josephson Sep 6, 2017 3:07pm

I prefer plastic bags to any tree based paper because they are envronmentally more friendly when properly used. I can use the same plastic bag a year sometimes, whereas a paper bag is shot in a week. Much of the plastic that goes into landfills has lots of life left in it. Educating people is what is necessary.