Shaming unsustainable consumer practices has reached multiple domains. The phenomenon that began with meat-eating and flying, has now spread to other industries. The goal of sustainable practices is to reduce society’s ecological footprint, a measure to ensure that the speed with which we consume resources and generate waste will be more in line with how fast the planet can recover from these habits. Growing consumer awareness and limited climate action in politics have led to the shaming of consumers’ everyday life choices. Besides flying and meat eating, driving SUVs, buying fast fashion, eating cheese, and even using Google’s search function have become shameful practices.

The rhetoric of shaming is seen as a threat to businesses. The clothing industry is the latest target of shaming, as the industry is highly unsustainable. According to the UN Economic Commission for Europe, the $2.5 trillion industry is responsible for roughly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined. Meanwhile, the UN argues, low-priced fashion encourages consumers to buy more frequently and to throw away still-wearable clothing instead of buying less and reusing clothes by buying second-hand. In a recent interview, the CEO of fast-fashion retailer H&M expressed his worries about the heightened scrutiny that the fashion industry is facing over its environmental impact.

Shaming consumers is not just a threat to businesses, but also poses a societal risk. It might fuel polarization in society. As we wrote before, the personal has become exceedingly political. As consumer tribes are groups of people emotionally connected through similar consumption values and similar practices can strengthen bonds between people, these judgements may underline the differences between groups. This could result in more intense polarization. Especially as businesses leaders are framing the situation as a trade-off between sustainability and economic welfare, this can give rise to polarization. Indeed, while the H&M CEO recognizes the need to reduce environmental impact, he adds that the industry “must also continue to create jobs, get better healthcare and all the things that come with economic growth.” This kind of rhetoric might fuel a further divide between the wealthy, highly educated consumer and the rest of society.

Implications:

  • Although one can stop consuming meat and start buying second-hand clothing and furniture, new organic, sustainable alternatives are often more expensive than the more polluting products. In multiple Western countries, ordering a salad is often more expensive than ordering a burger. A more sustainable lifestyle can thus be associated with a more expensive lifestyle, even if living sustainable does not have to be more costly (meat is often expensive). Among American consumers, Whole Foods is cynically called Whole Paycheck. Families struggling to put food on the table will find it intolerable to be shamed for their food choices. Shaming unsustainable consumer practices might thus lead to a backlash from those who cannot afford sustainable lifestyles.
  • Those living sustainably by default, not being able to fly around the globe and afford a luxury lifestyle, are often hurt by price hikes in the name of sustainability, such as increased fuel prices. The Yellow Vest Movement was sparked by this catch 22 of ecological versus economic wellbeing, hitting those at the economic bottom the hardest and leading to protests against the polluting, global elite.
  • Shaming consumer behavior might be impactful in clearly visible and explicitly unsustainable practices (e.g. flying), but disregards other, less visible areas such as housing. Thus far, shaming has not included some of the most impactful, but hardly visible, consumer choices such as domestic heating.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 3: rising inequality

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