The unsustainable lightness of the consumer

We are living in times that seem apocalyptic, with young activists blocking access to public buildings or event venues all over the world. With Greta Thunberg further out of the spotlight, it has been these groups of young people, some labelled as “the last generation”, who have been drawing our attention to the climate crisis and the collective irresponsibility of continuing to live as usual. Even the UN Secretary General, “our” António Guterres, recently warned that only 15 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals are being met according to plan, with the environmental ones being among the most neglected.

There are few who still deny that human civilisation has taken a step further in terms of consumption of available resources, jeopardising the basic conditions for a comfortable human life – as we know it. The fact that this impact is the result of very unequal global consumption is only exacerbated by the realisation that the poorest parts of the world will suffer most, or first, from the consequences of climate change.
Marketing is not oblivious to this reality, above all because it is the result of an economy based on consumption, and to consume is, by definition, to destroy. For some years now, we’ve been talking more and more about sustainable marketing, but also about greenwashing and, more recently, greenhushing.

If, on the one hand, the green positioning of brands is a trend that meets the issues on the agenda and the growing concerns of public opinion, greenwashing reflects practices that only give the appearance of environmental sustainability of companies, products or processes, especially through the communication of misleading messages. The practice is so serious that the EU is preparing to ban it. Greenhushing, on the other hand, is almost the opposite movement, in which companies prefer to hide or reduce the public exposure of their environmental sustainability efforts so as not to be criticised for what they do or don’t do in this area.
But is it possible to solve the problem of consumer sustainability simply by making changes that companies and brands have to implement? Whether by legal imposition, self-regulation systems or genuine concern for sustainability, in many sectors there have already been significant changes that could make a difference to the way our economies determine living conditions on the planet.

However, these changes will be fruitless if consumers don’t change their consumption habits and behaviour. It is incomprehensible that we are still unable to recycle most of the packaging we use! How difficult is it to reduce the maximum speed at which we drive on motorways from 120 km/h to 110 km/h, saving on fuel consumption, the environmental footprint and even reducing the risk of accidents? Is it possible to buy fewer pairs of shoes just because we want one more perfect match? Will we be able to eat only seasonal fruit and vegetables, or travel less or by more sustainable means, etc.?

Sustainable Marketing must embrace the challenge not only of repositioning companies, but also of orientating consumers towards an economy that will necessarily be different from the one we were made to dream of throughout the 20th century, based on the continuous growth of wealth and consumption. Sustainable marketing will always depend on responsible and sustainable consumption. Here too, marketers must put the consumer/citizen at the centre of their actions.

(first published in Diário de Aveiro, 05/10/2023)