Many recent market developments are based on the burgeoning demand for greater sustainability by a more environmentally conscious society. Ideas such as conscious consumerism, green capitalism, and a circular economy are some examples of this push towards a greener economy.
As a business conceived from a desire to create lasting, positive environmental impact, this conversation is especially important to us. Continuously, we ask ourselves if we’re doing more harm than good – whether we’re just cogs in our economic machine built for environmental degradation and inequality.
It appears that the common belief is that our economy can be organised in a way that allows us to live a sustainable future. Even #12 of our Sustainable Development Goals is Responsible Consumption and Production, where we should all aim to “do more and better with less” through improvements in the way our market operates.
Yet, it’s necessary to ask if the problem is truly in the way our market functions, or whether it’s the market itself that all our issues stem from.
Can our existing market work for a more sustainable future?
Advocates of sustainability usually centre their argument around three core arguments.
- Positive brand associations amongst various stakeholders
- Advantageous regulatory positions in anticipation of stricter environmental controls
- Cost-savings and efficiency improvements from innovation and the elimination of wasteful practices
This allows the business to capture a greater share of the market, earn higher profits from pricing their products and services higher, and keep costs low due to the savings gleaned from more sustainable practices.
While this may be theoretically possible, in reality, we might find that more sustainable practices are often costlier than existing methods of operating.
For example, Seastainable aims to keep our waste generation as low as possible, hence we try to use recycled polymailers to fulfil our orders. Yet, this practice comes with a cost – both financially and ecologically. Not only is it costlier to rely on recycled polymailers due to the time and inconvenience incurred to acquire them, the environmental costs of transport during the acquisition process is also unaccounted for (we don’t know how to measure this). The question is: is the carbon footprint in utilising recycled polymailers greater than the carbon footprint of traditional envelopes?
Thus businesses have two barriers to overcome in their quest towards becoming more sustainable. First, if the new method of operation is costlier, the business must be willing to incur the additional costs. Second, the business must be able to determine if the new method of operation is in actuality, good for the environment.
Another argument supporting the idea that our economy can be reorganised for sustainability is that regulators can step in to ensure businesses operate sustainably. One way is to develop metrics to measure negative externalities from the production and consumption of products and services. Negative externalities are costs borne by third parties uninvolved in the production or consumption of these products and services, e.g. air pollution from heavy metal factories drifting into homes miles away. By being able to quantify and measure these costs, authorities would be able to enact penalties or production restrictions to contain the damage.
What if greener businesses are simply not enough?
As renowned French designer Philippe Starck has said: “capitalism is not suitable for the future. It depends on growth and production, when we cannot produce anymore.”
Recall the viral infographic that went around in 2012, claiming that if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average US citizen, we would need four whole Earths to meet all our needs. Alarmingly, critics of the infographic are “convinced [these] numbers are underestimates.” Now take into account the fact that half of the world’s population is now considered “middle class” or “rich” – this means that global consumption as a whole will only escalate from here on out.
It then becomes excruciatingly clear that our current rate of consumption is unsustainable.
Ultimately, we come back to the question of whether businesses can ever truly be green if the very act of production itself comes with an ecological cost. At the end of the day, businesses need to make profit. The way to turn a profit is to generate sales which necessitates production through the exploitation of our increasingly scarce resources.
The market in which our businesses operate in depends on a huge fallacy – that our resources are infinite. This suggests that improvements in business operations only changes the extent of the damage caused to our sustainable future by resource extraction, but damage is still caused nonetheless. The very lifeblood of the market system, consumption, is something that fuels this damage.
In light of this, perhaps we should be looking towards a different way of organising our resources. Perhaps, green capitalism and conscious consumption is not the answer. Just like how there are no healthy cigarettes for you, consumption hurts the Earth, and however we change and package it, it is still consumption.
Coming back to Philippe Starck, he has brought up remarkable points on this issue during his interview with UN Environment, and we’d like to share them with you:
- The concept of property could be replaced with rental.
“A borrower has the responsibility of returning a product. A seller does not have this responsibility.”
A borrower has the impetus to be a good steward of the borrowed item, ensuring it is returned in good condition – reusable and not wasted. A seller, on the other hand, has no incentive to ensure that the product he sells is recycled, kept in good condition, or turned to waste. A buyer also does not feel that incentive as strongly as a borrower, because he owns the product. Thus, if a buyer is unenlightened about sustainability and resource scarcity, item wastage is of little consequence to him, despite its enormous consequence on the planet.
This could hold the key to a sustainable future. No only are the needs of society met through the borrowing and lending of products and services, the necessity for production becomes significantly lower as items are treated as durables meant for multiple reuses. This releases the environmental strain on our scarce resources. Businesses would then move towards matching service and product providers with lenders, and supporting the ecosystem surrounding this new method of organising resources.
- Recycling is not a solution.
“[Products] must not only use as little raw materials and energy as possible, but also be recyclable.”
Starck believes that consumers must “want to live with their purchases and not throw them away on a whim”. Again, this returns to the idea of reducing our need for consumption and production – we have more than enough for what we truly need. Recycling provides an easy cop-out for our poor purchasing habits, thinking that the damage is not as high because our items can be recycled. Less than 20% of materials used in consumer goods can be recycled, so the waste we create with recyclable materials is still significant.
Conscious consumerism may also be futile
Sustainable fashion journalist Alden Wicker has also admitted that conscious consumerism will not make a difference in the grand scheme of things. When invited to speak in front of a panel of the UN Youth Delegation, Alden debunked the myth of conscious consumerism – the very thing Seastainable’s business model hinges on. We'll go on to summarise the main points of Alden's article below because the ideas she's explored have helped us tremendously while we contemplated our position in this question of hypocrisy (please read her full article if you're interested!).
Conscious consumerism is seductive because you vote with your dollar. You make moral choices in the act of choosing how and what you purchase. We actively support organisations that fit our system of beliefs, and we avoid those that don’t – in hopes of driving organisational change through economic repercussions.
The truth is, conscious consumerism does not make us greener consumers. A study in 2012 has found no meaningful difference between the carbon footprints of “green” and average consumers.
Being able to consume consciously is also a matter of privilege. Ethical, sustainable, green options are often expensive (though Seastainable tries to change this). Green consumers must also have the time, energy, and knowledge to do relevant research to inform their ethical purchasing habits. More often than not, unethical ingredients are hidden behind a wall of jargon that the layperson would be unequipped to identify.
Bottom line is, conscious consumerism appears to be insufficient. Some believe that it is a way to avoid your responsibility of pushing for greater systematic change. Some believe that it is a cop-out, an easy way to feel good about yourself, despite knowing that you’re an actor in an unsustainable economic system.
Tying Philippe Starck and conscious consumerism together
A professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University, has published a report for the United Nations Environmental Programme, “Fostering and Communicating Sustainable Lifestyles: Principles and Emerging Practices.”
She’s found that the capitalist economy is organised to maximise consumption. Tellingly, “70% of GDP in the US is based on household consumption”. It is unbelievably difficult for consumers to be sustainable, and the reason is because of market capitalism.
Market capitalism sets up conditions in which non-sustainability is the way a consumer survives. These points have been explained in exceeding clarity by Alden, but we’ll summarise it here:
- Packaging is provided in unrecyclable materials. Of 1.6 million tonnes of domestic waste disposed in Singapore in 2018, 1/3 is packaging waste. Half of this packaging waste is plastic, of which only 4% are recycled. (yet, remember Starck saying that recycling is a cop-out, and it is not the answer? Perhaps we should aim to eliminate packaging instead)
- Chemical-free foods are costly, which alienates it as a sensible choice for most people.
- Growing work demands, which means we’re working longer hours, with less time to fix our belongings and prepare our own meals (reminds us of Singapore’s dabao culture - in fact, a Nielsen report has found that 44% of Singaporeans have purchased meal delivery kits online, higher than the global average of 33%, due to busy lifestyles.)
- Planned obsolescence, for electronics and clothes. Corporations continually create unnecessary demand for items we don’t need based, e.g. fashion seasons, newer mobile models. (A YouGov Omnibus research has found 34% of its respondents having thrown away their clothes after wearing it just once)
Alden suggests that instead of putting so much focus on choosing more sustainable lifestyle choices, and taking that burden onto ourselves, it would be infinitely more productive to demand change from industry players that have the power to change the way things are done. This means petitioning/lobbying governments and corporations for better climate policy, environmental protection, and packaging agreements.
In her words, “conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals”.
We agree. We think this is a good point to tie two ideas together. Alden has explained how our market itself drives a lot of the sustainability issues we face. Yet, her suggestions seem to be centred around improving the way the market functions so we can be a “greener” market. Our greater worry is that our resources are running out, and this is where Starck comes in. Instead of choosing to improve on a broken system, maybe we should take the learning lesson of our market economy potentially being unsustainable, and look towards newer ways of organising our resources (like the rental economy).
So are we hypocrites?
Seastainable came to life because we wanted to do something positive for the environment, while working within the confines of the game we’ve been brought up in – the market economy. Yet, the more we operate in this space, the more it feels like the game has been rigged against the environment from the start because it is founded on the false idea that our resources are infinite.
In a way, Seastainable encourages consumption. We do survive on our seapporters consuming our products. Our products also undoubtedly come with an ecological cost. Many times, we’ll ask ourselves if we’re unwittingly doing more harm to the environment.
We also feel that a shift in how our market is organised is unavoidable. It is a fact that global rates of consumption are unsustainable. It is beginning to seem like we’re bumping up against Malthus’ Limits of Growth.
However, we’ve come to terms with the idea that there will be a transitory period. A period in which our economy reorganises itself – whether through operational efficiencies or whether it’s a fundamental overhaul. In that space, Seastainable has found a place to contribute to the environment. By providing individuals with sustainable alternatives to potentially more damaging disposable items, we’re hoping to foster healthy ecological habits amongst our seapporters. We’re also hoping that our products – though it seems that conscious consumerism doesn’t make one a greener customer than another – could spark conversations and interest in the topic of sustainability. After all, petitioning and lobbying industry players will only be effective with strength in numbers, and if our business is able to bolster the number of people passionate about the state of Earth, our only home, then we think we’re doing good.
Also, not forgetting the many wonderful partners we’re able to support through this venture. We cannot aim for big, systematic changes, but ignore the smaller issues our environment and local communities are currently facing.
So, are we hypocrites? Perhaps so. The concept of a green business is an oxymoron in of itself. But we think we’re in a transitory period, and there is space for now for an organisation like us to plug in the gaps as we move from the old system to the newer, better system; whatever that may be.