Corporations displace environmental and ethical guilt on consumers Photo: Unslpash
Reading Time: 3 minutes


With a summer littered with forest fires, air quality advisories, and heat warnings, climate change has everyone on the hot seat.

Consequently, there is a rising societal pressure for individuals to practice conscious consumerism by making personal lifestyle changes. “Conscious consumption is an umbrella term that simply means engaging in the economy with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society at large.” The main idea here is shopping sustainably can help preserve the environment, assuming companies uphold their end of the deal (which is seldom the case).

Some may argue that social pressure can be effective to some degree in forcing companies to change their environmentally unethical ways. Supply and demand, right, Telfer? However, more often than not, companies opt for greenwashing tokenism to garner societal appeal in lieu of creating meaningful systemic change. Consider some of your favourite stores in the Rideau Centre, like H&M.

On Jan. 25, 2017, H&M launched a campaign titled “H&M conscious: bring it on,” where they stated, “H&M wants to close the loop on fashion by giving customers an easy solution to hand in unwanted garments so they can be reused or recycled through H&M’s garment collecting initiative.” The process they are referring to is known as textile recycling. 

On Feb. 27, 2018, The Journal for Textile Recycling published a review titled Environmental Impact of Textile Reuse and Recycling stating that prior to being recycled, materials must be broken down mechanically by shredding or cutting. They can then be treated by means of mechanical, chemical, or, less frequently, thermal methods. In many cases, a combination of these three is used. Natural cotton fibers must be dissolved to their molecular levels to be respun into new fibres.

According to Chetna Prajapati, who currently studies textile recycling techniques at Loughborough University, the clothes we wear are difficult to separate to be recycled effectively. Our clothes are made up of different combinations of fibres, fixtures, and accessories. They are composed of different blends of yarns, filaments, plastics, and metals. 

If the donated clothes can’t be recycled by H&M, what is happening to them?

H&M and other retailers alike sell the donated clothes to a middleman like I:Collect, a firm handling donated clothes for H&M, Levi’s, Adidas, and Reebok. Jennifer Gilbert, chief marketing officer for I:Collect, said in an email to the Fulcrum that “the company has collected more than 600,000 kilograms of old garments from its Canadian partners since 2013.” From there the clothes are shipped to developing countries like Kenya to be sold once again by vendors. Not recycled; not donated to those in need, but sold. Kenya is one of Canada’s biggest customers for second-hand clothes. In 2016, Canada exported more than $160 million worth of used textiles globally, with $22 million of it going to Kenya. Once the clothes are received, most are low quality and are too old to re-sell. Ultimately, these clothes end up being burned in landfill sites behind the second-hand clothing markets.

Once again, the handcuffs of environmental culpability are placed on the civilians, and the corporate culprits walk away from the scene of the crime scot-free.

The heatwave of this summer, too, has exemplified the way corporations place culpability on civilians. In New York, individuals were asked to turn off their air conditioning to avoid power outages. Meanwhile, Times Square remained  lit up with glowing billboards. New York corporations turned their backs on civilians in sweltering heat to keep their billboards aglow. 

British Petroleum endorsed their carbon footprint calculator, ignoring the fact that they spilled over 200 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This is emblematic of the way corporations displace environmental and ethical guilt on consumers. 

As corporations place the burden of climate culpability on consumers, it feels nearly impossible for the average person to be carbon neutral or completely ethical in their daily lives. 

Some make a valiant effort. They’ll try a veggie burger, ditch their morning eggs, use a bamboo toothbrush, pay an up-charge to shop locally, and stick to natural deodorant, even though they might smell mildly the first few months. “Totally normal! It’ll pass,” they promise. (IWe’re still not convinced it ever does pass.) 

All this effort is a drop in the bucket, and some CEO siphons the water out of that bucket to mass-produce a “Mondays, right?” t-shirt and sell it for $14.99.

So, when you critique the individual wearing the Shein bikini or using a plastic straw, critique instead the companies too entrenched in greed to stop and smell the wildfires. Businesses exist in a world affected by climate change and they, more than anyone else, have the power to do something about it. It’s time to take responsibility. The climate crisis is not ours to bear alone: shame on us for ever believing it was.