Consumers shouldn’t receive sole blame for environmental degradation


Robert S. Donovan

Robert S. Donovan | CreativeCommons

Ying Huang

Sustainability has become a huge topic of conversation in recent years. Yet, the narrative often dictates that consumer consumption is the biggest obstacle standing between humanity and a sustainable future.

While consumption is a problem, it is not a bigger issue than production, nor is it the root cause of bad production practices. The private sector ultimately has much more power to make the world more sustainable than the average consumer.

A first step that should be taken to change this narrative is for there to be an alteration to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12, titled “responsible consumption and production.”

This is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the U.N. in 2015 as part of a larger plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development.

It is time that the U.N. — an entity positioned to speak on behalf of the global community — to acknowledge that the root cause of environmental degradation is production, not consumption.

Goal 12 places the onus of responsibility on the individual rather than the governments and corporations that have the capacity to impact climate change.

For an international institution like the U.N., which claims to be for the people, it is unacceptable to see that SDG 12 is framed such that consumption is a greater problem than production.

The harms of large-scale production are manifold. Industry contributes pollution in water, air and soil, as well as altered land use and decreased biodiversity.

All of this is preventable. Corporations can mitigate their impact on the environment through programs such as improved recycling, better waste management and eco-friendly technologies.

But if one were to visit the U.N. SDG 12 website, they would find that the facts and figures listed do not refer to the harms of production from the private sector as much as they’re focused on the harms of consumption.

Spoiler: the words “produce” and “production” do not show up at all, but “consume” and “consumption” are in the first few bullet points.

If the U.N. truly wants to promote sustainability, it needs to recognize that harmful production practices are more problematic in both its policies and political messages. Stop blaming the people.

To put this into perspective, the global annual carbon dioxide emissions are now over 34 billion metric tons. The average American is responsible for producing 16.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

A study done by Our World in Data reveals that if an individual reduced their emission level to zero for the next 70 years, the total greenhouse gas savings would be equal to one second of global emissions produced.

Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions only fell by 7% during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in 2020. This indicates that the individual is not to blame for rising greenhouse gas levels.

In reality, the environmental issues which exist today are a product of a private sector that decided there is an opportunity to position consumerism as the primary cause of global warming.