“I don’t care if you recycle”: Why we need to rethink environmental responsibilities.

by Emilia Hermelin


Earlier in 2019, climate activist Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote an article in which she stated; “I don’t care if you recycle” (Heglar, 2019). Heglar explains how she, due to being active within the environmental movement, often listen to people ‘confessing’ their environmental ‘sins’ to her – how they still buy products wrapped in plastic, still consume meat regularly or still do not recycle. Heglar is concerned by such ‘confessions’ and argues that we need to stop believing that responsibility for environmental pollution lies within the actions of a singular individual. Instead, her argument suggests that there is a need to reveal societal structures that enables environmental exploitation. She argues that when responsibility for the environment is individualised, individuals are in fact made to “[carry] the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes […]. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom” (Heglar, 2019). 

Heglar’s statement “I do not care if you recycle” will be my entry point into a deeper inquiry concerned with the targeting of individual behaviour within environmental policymaking. Prompted by her argument, this essay will examine how such policies may at times allow systems of power to be absolved from guilt and responsibility for environmental damage and exploitation. The text will begin by looking at how environmental policy can be seen to have turned focus onto individual behaviour in the early nineties. Of particular concern is how policymakers have largely centred their agendas around changing consumer behaviour by promoting ‘sustainable consumerism’ within a ‘green economy’.

The second section will look at arguments for and against eco-labelling and sustainability certification, which have been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001). However, I will argue alongside evidence from the wood and paper industry that suggests that simply providing consumers with a sustainable option does not enable real change. Partly because individuals do not have enough purchasing power to impact this type of industry. 

The third section will explore the extent to which neoliberal politics have influenced discourses that puts the individual consumer at the centre of environmental responsibility. Attention will be paid to how neoliberalism has contributed to projects of ‘individualisation’ (Maniates, 2002) that has been suggested to fragment the social tapestry and makes it hard to imagine a reality outside of capitalist frameworks (Fisher, 2009). I will argue that there is a need for policymakers to consider how this has contributed to the production of citizens as consumers, and that if we want to decrease environmental exhaustion, we may need to reconsider this discursive and political trend. The final section of this text will look at how individualisation of environmental issues has enabled governments to govern “at arm’s length” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). The discussion will at this point turn to consider the role that states play and how the concept of the “Green State” may be able to support the green movement. 

Changing Behaviour: Environmental Policy and the Individual

Facing the ever-more imposing challenges of climate change, policymakers have since long recognised the need to engage the public in order to mitigate environmental damage. Some of the first UK policies focusing on changing individual behaviour emerged in the early nineties, in the form of the government’s Sustainable Development Strategy (Lucas et al., 2008). The document introduces three main strategies for changing behaviour; 1) by informing the public about environmental issues, 2) introducing new environmental regulations, and 3) using taxes and charges to discourage damaging behaviour (ibid.). Throughout the last decade, the UK has seen a variety of public awareness campaigns based around this strategy, such as “‘Are you doing your bit?’ (OECD, 2002) and “Recycle Now”. The campaigns have largely focused attention around consumer behaviour and sustainable consumption. This follows a recognition of the fact that “[m]ost individuals in the developed world currently consume beyond sustainable levels” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.244).

In 2018, the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs published their Resources and Waste Strategy (UK, DEFRA, 2018), which introduces new policies that support further development of a Circular Economy, with the aim to “redesign value chains to support flows of materials in circular systems” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). The plan argues that in order to curb environmental degradation and resource exhaustion, we must adopt a better strategy for producing, choosing and reusing products. A major part of this strategy would be to change consumer behaviour by providing better information about sustainable product choices, encourage reuse of products and by promoting conscious end of use disposal, such as recycling. The plan can be seen to centre responsibility around the individual consumer, from the purchasing moment to discarding. It relies on the individual to make sustainable consumer choices by prioritising ‘Eco-labels’ and rejecting environmentally damaging products. 

Nationally and internationally, the goal has been to decouple economic growth and environmental impact. In 2011, “The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) made “green growth” its […] slogan” and “the 2012 United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development focused on the ‘green economy’ as its response to the consumption sustainability dilemma” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.235). In both cases, “green growth” and “green economy” have at their core an interest in reducing environmental “bads” whilst protecting economic growth. Which, if successful, could be a “win-win for the economy and the environment” (ibid). 

However, despite efforts, little has changed in terms of resource consumption (Hobson, 2004). In fact, throughout the nineties figures for both fossil fuel consumption and waste production went up (ibid.). More recently, international emissions from aviation has more than doubled (UK, Department for Transport, 2018), and in 2016 the total figure for waste generation went up by 4.2% (UK, DEFRA, 2019). Such figures suggest that at “the individual level […], the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable consumption have done little to promote changes to individual consumption practices” (Hobson, 2004, p.130). The government response to figures showing little uptake in sustainable consumption practices has been to suggest that there still exists a lack of information and environmental awareness amongst consumers. However, there now exists a considerable body of critique that argues that there are other reasons as to why we see significant limitations to what “green consumerism” can achieve.

Green Consumerism: Evidence from the Wood & Paper Industry 

“Green consumerism” fits the “green economy” model and has been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001), a concept that suggests that paying more for environmentally sustainable commodities encourages producers to invest in developing such products. These types of market-based approaches are said to put “pressure on upstream actors to implement more sustainable practices” (Konefal, 2012, p.336). However, significant evidence shows that policies endorsing eco-consumerism are limited in what they can achieve; not least because, even though 30% of the population reports that they care about companies sustainability record, only 3% reflected this in their purchases in 2000 (UK, DEFRA, 2005). 

In the case of wood and paper production, eco-labelling in the form of sustainability certification has faced extensive challenges, even though some positives have been recorded in terms of forest management (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Firstly, it has been difficult to establish trust and acceptance for certified forest products. Partly due to opinions amongst consumers still being divided over what counts as a sustainable product. Secondly, on the production side, producers have expressed fears that certification standards “would create a harmful trade barrier and unfair market disadvantages” (ibid., p.136). Thirdly, even though consumers often report that they would like to buy more sustainably, the reasons for choosing a certain product are a lot more complex and need to consider social, cultural and personal factors (Jackson, 2005).

Last, but certainly not least, consumers who do choose sustainable options do not possess sufficient purchasing power in order to have a significant effect on deforestation rates (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Further, “markets for [Certified Forest Products] remain very small as a result of a low level of participation by the industry’s biggest consumers—ICI organizations” (ibid., p.146). This suggests that, even though individual purchases of certified products might send positive signals to producers, it is not reasonable to suggest that this alone can have a sufficient effect on global sustainability.

Even though the industry has seen a development in “technological efficiency of production and consumption there is a major debate in the literature about whether these efficiency initiatives have reduced overall negative environmental impacts“(O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). It is then evident that the notion of “green consumerism”, in its individualised form, fails to provide real change in practice, and may in fact further contribute to damaging discourses and perceptions of what an individual purchase can achieve. We need to consider that market-based approaches have no power to change the system they exist within. Rather, they function within the constraints of capitalism; an economic system that has been recognised as being the “main engine behind impending catastrophic climate change” (Foster et al., 2009, p.1085). Konefal (2012) has therefore suggested that “in turning to market-based approaches [the sustainability movement] has become captured by the market” (ibid., p.337). 

Individualisation, Neoliberalism and the Environment

“When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society” 

(Maniates, 2002, p.45)

In order to “illuminate the possibilities and limitations of contemporary environmental politics” (Coffey & Marston, 2013, p.180) we need to consider underlying discourses which may be influencing and shaping decision making. Particular attention has been paid to neoliberalism and its extensive influence on policy making (ibid.). It has been said that “neoliberalism seem to be everywhere” (Peck & Tickell, 2002, p.380). Yet, at the same time it has been argued that neoliberalism largely remains invisible in our daily lives (Monbiot, 2016). This dichotomy suggests that defining aspects of neoliberalism has become invisible due to the normalisation of its functions and effects.

Arguably, neoliberalism is difficult to pin down as the word itself works to describe a complex set of processes that have spatio-temporal variations (Peck & Tickell, 2002). However, the consensus within literature debates seem to highlight three main areas of change taking place in the 1970s to 1980s. Firstly, a change in global economics and trade. The term neoliberalism is often “understood to refer to the process of opening up national economies to global actors such as multinational corporations and to global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank” (Larner, 2003, p.9). Secondly, a societal change from “the traditional industrial culture that went before it” (Gardener & Shepphard, 1989, p.44), to a culture where new identities emerged “associated with greater work flexibility” and “the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption” (Hall cited in Southwood, 2011, p.8). Lastly, a political shift which saw policies within the United Kingdom pushing for lessening the demands made on the state by promoting privatisation and deregulation.

It is easy to then reveal a set of common themes for neoliberal projects. One is the positive promotion of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’. Although seeming enchantingly democratic and desirable, such freedoms arguably have a negative side, especially in the case of environmental policy and regulation. This is due to the way in which it continues to allow corporations the freedom to act without restraint, while rarely having to face the repercussions of their acts (Monbiot, 2016). This is evident when reading the CDP Carbon-Majors Report (Griffin, 2017) which shows that since the industrial revolution, just 100 fossil fuel producers have been responsible for over half of the worlds GHG emissions without facing any major consequences.

Further, embedded within this type of neoliberal projects is a certain type of individualism, often promoted and reinforced within public policy and political discourse. This is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher who once claimed that there is “no such thing as society, only individuals and families” (as in Patterson, 2005, p. 377). Neoliberal Thatcherism frames the individual as responsible for their own lives and fates; “If individuals fail to achieve particular goals in the market, it is their fault; the individuals are victims of their own irrational behaviours or have some deficit over which they have no control.” (ibid). 

In a neoliberalist society, ‘freedom’ seemingly becomes synonymous with alienation; from the production of commodities, from society and local communities, from politics and policy, and not least from our environment. This kind of alienation is implied by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2008). Fisher argues that we live in a state of “capitalist reality” where it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (ibid., p.1). He argues that this is in part because, if unregulated, capital expansion has infinite potential and the “burning up of Earth’s resources is [seen as] only a temporary glitch” (ibid., p.18). This fetishization of economic growth demands that citizens continue to fulfil their main role as consumers. This is evident within environmental policy, where the question tends to be what to consume, rather than whether or not to consume it in the first place. Michael Maniates (2002) therefore argues that in order to address environmental responsibility, we need to return to seeing ourselves as citizens first and consumers second. The work of policymakers may then arguably have to do the same work.

Citizens and the “Green State”? Calling for Structural Change  

When the focus of environmental policymaking remains firmly rooted in a neoliberal idea of expanding individual consumption choice, it arguably “reduces individuals’ ability to make other, more important choices” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). It encourages individuals to take the problem of environmental exhaustion and pollution in ‘their own hands’ – a discourse that Heglar (2019) calls “not only preposterous; it’s dangerous” (ibid.) as it suggests that the world altering environmental issues that our generation is currently facing is down to individuals failing to ‘tweak’ their consumption habits. Kersty Hobson (2004) highlights how this allows governments to promote sustainability at “arm’s length” due to the way it passes responsibility for consumption patterns on to the consumer. Hobson (2004) continues to argue that we need to rethink the relationship between citizens and the state and division of responsibility between the two. She suggests that although citizens are responsible for paying tax and contributing to society, “the government has the responsibility to facilitate and enable citizens to make sound choices by providing strong services within a climate of mutual trust and healthy democratic dialogue” (ibid., p.133).

The lack of action on behalf of the state, and continued individualisation in the face of environmental issues leads to a “depoliticization of environmental degradation” (Maniates, 2002, p.47). Perhaps, then, we need to “re-think the political again” (Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6) and consider what a political system based on environmental concern could look like. We know that the climate crisis is already here; the UK government officially recognised this by declaring a state of climate emergency in Spring 2019. Yet, few seem willing to really “stir the pot” and commit to act on such an emergency. It has been argued that is seems as if we live in a state of post-politics, where everything can be discussed and politicised, “but only in a non-committal way and as a nonconflict. Absolute and irreversible choices are kept away […]” (Diken & Lautsten, 2004 as in Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6). 

Some writers therefore argue that perhaps environmental policy should no longer be limited to government policies (Jänicke, 1997), seemingly suggesting a “declining relevance of the state” (Duit et al., 2016, p.2). However, I would like to argue along with writers who suggests that within the current global structure it might not yet be possible to reject the idea of the nation-state completely. Rather, we should look at how the state could take on a new role as an environmental “steward”, centring regulatory ideals around the concept of an “ecological democracy” (Eckersley, 2004, p.2), creating what has been referred to as the “Green State”. This follows the arguments that states are currently best equipped to provide the framework and structure needed to create far-reaching, global change for the environment; “the green movement needs the state […] if it is to move closer toward its vision of a socially just and ecologically sustainable society” (ibid., p.11).

Concluding Remarks 

At the time of writing, newspapers and social media pages are starting to fill up with disappointing reports from the 2019 COP25 meeting in Madrid. As countries fail to agree on Article 6 from the Paris Agreement (UNFCC, 2015) that guides ambitions for reducing GHG emissions, some people say that “governments have turned their backs on raising ambition, at a time when we need more than ever to heed the scientific warning” (Mathiesen, 2019). Further, many express the urgency in addressing how such failure continues to see “the people who have contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most while those who have gained the most from emitting greenhouse gases will suffer the least.” (Irfan, 2019). 

I have argued that decisions to target individual behaviour within environmental policy is therefore largely misguided. This is not to say that individual behaviour does not need to change in order to adapt to a changing climate – it does. But individuals should not be made to carry the entirety of the problem on their shoulders whilst governments and organisations carry on “business as usual” and keep an “arm’s length” away from any real commitments for change. I have argued that we have reached a point within global and national politics where we need to rethink the role that states play, and have suggested alongside Robyn Eckersley (2004) that we need a state that recognises how it is “implicated in ecological destruction” (ibid., p.5). Perhaps this could be in the form of Eckersley’s ambitious “Green State”, where ecological critique informs decision making. 


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