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Winrock International

Unavoidable Consumption: Escaping “The Bad Place” – While We Still Can

How can we mitigate climate-related and other negative impacts of modern hyper-consumption?

Dr. Timothy Pearson, Director of Ecosystem Services

A storyline in the NBC sitcom “The Good Place” results in all humanity being damned to “The Bad Place” because the nature of modern life ─ not least our seemingly innate, hyper-consumptive human nature ─ means we cannot avoid negative impacts on the planet and all others who live here.

Is this the reality of modern life? That just by shopping, eating and even living we are doing harm to the planet? The preponderance of palm oil and soybeans in the products we use, and our ever-increasing consumption of animal proteins is undeniably and historically linked to deforestation, environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Our car miles, flights, and our air heating and cooling requirements certainly result in damaging greenhouse gas emissions. And undoubtedly, many companies egregiously maltreat both their own workers and the local communities from which they source.

Yet the negative impact of modern consumption is not inevitable. Thanks largely to consumer pressure, commodity producers are now paying attention and making commitments to protect animal welfare, workers’ rights, and to reduce single-use plastics, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. And modern technology and instant international communication mean it is now easier to track what companies are doing and to hold them to account.

Focusing just on greenhouse gas emissions: Have a look at any given producer’s website under the sustainability section. There is a good chance you will now see listed a greenhouse gas ambition, perhaps under a “science-based targets” or other similarly described initiative. Huge multinational companies including the likes of Nestlé, Tyson and Unilever have publicly committed to net zero emissions by 2050; in other words, to balance any emissions with equivalent carbon sequestration or other offsets either through investments local to their supply chains (known as insets), or through the carbon market. Companies including Netflix are working toward carbon neutrality almost immediately, while in extremes cases, others like Microsoft have committed to canceling out all emissions stretching back to startup.

Therefore, we should not feel condemned to a ”Bad Place of irredeemable guilt in our modern habits of consumption. Making important pledges does not equate to actual positive impact, and companies must be held accountable to keep their commitments and demonstrate they have done so with high-quality quantification, such as through the verification methodology used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N. body responsible for advancing knowledge of human-induced climate change. In this year already full of anxiety due to accelerating climate change and extraordinary, seemingly endless, rounds of natural disasters, we must not cease to demand high ambition and action from the companies we live alongside, and we must hold companies to account to meet their pledges.

This year’s annual meeting of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) can be an opportunity to move away from our collective guilt and climate anxiety ─ which the IPCC’s recent 6th Assessment Report no doubt greatly amplified ─ towards taking collective action against greenhouse gas emissions and reversing the damage we have done to the Earth’s climate.

What can we consumers do? I urge you, for any companies whose products play an important role in your kitchen, your bathroom, your travel, your home life or your wardrobe: Go to their websites to see what they have achieved already in terms of sustainability, and what they pledge to achieve in the future. And make decisions on how you spend your money based on the ambition and achievements of these companies. If we do this together, today, we can get to a better place.