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Individual responsibility versus collective action: An examination of the impact of environmental advertising

Does the individualization of environmentalism have any merits? Can it successfully co-exist with collective action? Environmental advertising (or “green†advertising) assures consumers that they can evoke positive environmental change by adopting simple habits and by purchasing green goods provided by companies (Maniates, 2001). These include wearing clothing made from sustainable fibres, consuming local and organic food, purchasing hybrid cars or choosing cosmetics made with natural ingredients. However, some environmental scholars such as Michael Maniates have criticized these actions as greenwashing which individualizes environmental problems.

The tension at the heart of consumer culture is that it is a fragile system that cannot sustain itself indefinitely (Varey, 2001). The resources needed to extract, produce, transport, and advertise the products that consumers take for granted are being used up at an alarming rate, with devastating environmental costs. We all know this. Consumer culture has received ever-increasing blame for the environmental crisis, which marketing responds to with “green advertisingâ€.

Michael Maniates’ research (2001) provides an insightful critique of this individualization associated with green marketing. Green advertising, he argues, coyly sidesteps the underlying issues of overconsumption and individualization, in the attempt to preserve familiar, comfortable patterns of consumption. According to Maniates, true environmental action would involve long term solutions such as collective public policy that reduces our consumption patterns and breaks our reliance on fossil fuels. This perspective argues that within green advertising, larger social patterns and powers are ignored and civic action is disregarded as a viable solution. Instead, individualization places all blame (as well as all responsibility for action) on individual consumers. In reality, however, green advertising is sustained through a capitalist system that is innately un-environmental in its need for constant growth and the development of new markets. Goldman and Papson (1996) share these sentiments, claiming that the entire purpose of advertising is to create demand for products, and therefore advertising is inherently un-environmental.

Citizenship vs Consumption

But maybe green advertising has benefits that cannot be disregarded. First, in order to fully grasp the complexities of contemporary culture, it is necessary to broaden the traditional definitions of “consumption†and “citizenshipâ€. Maniates asserts that “the individualization of responsibility, because it characterizes environmental problems as the consequence of destructive consumer choice, asks that individuals imagine themselves as consumers first and citizens second†(2001, p. 34). However, I wish to counter this idea and maintain an alternative view of the coupling of the “citizen-consumerâ€. Trentmann agrees that this phenomenon leaves social change to the realm of consumption, but argues that this new form cannot be overlooked. Thus, the conventional definitions are no longer satisfactory. Citizenship –too often see as irrelevant and stuffy– is being transformed. As Trentmann asserts, “the political is back†(2007, p. 147). Consumption and citizenship do not have to be viewed as a zero-sum game. In fact, consumers are increasingly concerned about political ideas within their consumption habits—consumer boycotts, Fair Trade Certified alternatives and concerns over sweatshops are all examples of this.

Muldoon’s research draws on the concept of the citizen-consumer in the realm of environmentalism. For instance, as Muldoon argues (2006), people have different ways of being politically active, and the marketplace may be an arena for individuals who shy away from politics to be active in environmentalism. Others argue that it is often easier for voices to be heard within the marketplace than within politics. Since companies are afraid of losing business, they may be more likely to respond to public opinion. Here, green marketing has a useful purpose and can fill the voids in collective public action (Muldoon, 2006).

Although Maniates (2001) argues that environmental change is not possible in the realm of the individual consumer, the fact remains that in several cases, (such as some food and personal hygiene products) consumption may be inevitable—so why not offer environmentally-friendly alternatives? Perhaps, green advertising offers consumers a reminder and an opportunity to engage with their environmental values on an ongoing basis. Seyfang also arrives at the conclusion that individual environmentally-conscious consumption is a “necessary complement†to more radical action—necessary because people require some purchased goods (2005, p. 302).

Empowering the Individual?

A second argument claims that green advertising’s individualization is not detrimental because it acts as an empowering force for individuals. As previously mentioned, there was a high level of concern for the environment among Americans in the 90s. However, citizens’ actions do not reflect this level of concern. This is a situation that is still extremely relevant. The authors believe that environmental advertising can be remarkably effective at empowering individuals to act on their environmental concerns. Cobb-Walgren, Ellen and Wiener’s telephone survey measured perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE) and environmental concern. Perceived consumer effectiveness is defined as the “belief that the efforts of an individual can make a difference in the solution to a problem†(1991, p. 103).

However, not all advertising is equally effective in empowering consumers. Interestingly, it appears that the more “lighthearted†advertising (advertising which serious environmentalists may critique) is more effective. The authors suggest that marketing may wish to avoid discussing how dire a situation is (what they call the “sick baby†appeal), or else individuals will be completely overwhelmed and will not feel that there is anything they can do. As they argue, “one can think he or she is guilty of contributing to the problem without thinking he or she has the power to solve the problem†(p. 105).

What is suggested instead of the “sick baby†approach is marketing campaigns that show how individuals are making an impact through their daily decisions. For instance, Encorp (a Canadian recycling company) regularly features advertising that mentions the positive impact of individuals’ decisions. One of their newspaper ads proudly declares: “Just by recycling your beverage containers you help keep the equivalent of 126,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases out of BC’s atmosphere†(Encorp, 2009). This way, people will be inspired to do more. The authors believe that this can be done without minimizing the importance of the issue at hand. In effect, the authors do not dismiss green advertising as a marketing campaign. Instead, they see it as a valuable tactic in warding off sentiments of hopelessness. As they argue, “both public and private policymakers who seek to encourage voluntary behavior on behalf of the environment should try to enhance consumer perceptions that their own actions will improve the environment†(1991, p. 111).

Therefore, these findings suggest that green advertising’s individualization of environmental action is not wholly detrimental. Green advertising may help to raise an individual’s personal sense of control in the problems of environmental destruction, causing more action to be taken. This is a key point that Maniates may have overlooked. Although collective action is perhaps the key element in positive change, individual empowerment may be the important precursor to collective action. In this way, individual action and collective action are not at odds.

Greater Effects: Voluntary Simplicity

Finally, there is some evidence to suggest that individual green consumption can actually lead to more significant action. Voluntary simplicity (VS) refers to the trend of adopting a lifestyle with little consumption and material goods (Kumju et al., 2006). This decision is noteworthy because it is born out of personal choice rather than economic necessity such as poverty or war. Voluntary simplicity is not necessarily new, but the researchers have uncovered a significant new element to add to the theory: beginner voluntary simplicity (BVS). Beginner voluntary simplifiers are not true voluntary simplifiers yet, but are important precursors in the process. They may not reduce their overall consumption, but have taken measures to purchase environmentally-friendly options (Kumju et al., 2006). Because of this, beginner voluntary simplifiers are a crucial target market for green advertising.

Essentially, consumption can be seen as a continuum rather than a binary, with voluntary simplicity on one side, and extreme consumerism on the other. This allows for the possibility of change. The authors decided to study this unique group to decide what steps they were taking, and what motivated them to take part in BVS. The authors determine that although advancement from BVS to VS is certainly not inevitable, there is a group of beginner voluntary simplifiers named “apprentice simplifiers†who will eventually become true voluntary simplifiers (Kumju et al., 2006). The role of green advertising is quite high for this group, the authors suggest, as they may “rely on more accessible and mainstream media, as well as actual product information on packaging†(Kumju et al., 2006, p. 526). Green advertising has educational appeal to this group of BVS.

What do you think?

After weighing the different arguments, Muldoon explains, “the game of sustainable living begins when more people can play. And anything that encourages greater contemplation of, and participation in, green issues is worth examining†(2006, para. 46). Here, I believe Muldoon is correct. Collective environmental groups are made up of individuals—empowered individuals who believe real change can be made. For this reason, it is simply not possible to altogether discount green advertising, and the individual action that stems from it. Green advertising and green consumerism can provide a place for the union of individual and collective action.

Therefore, I believe that individual action, though not sufficient, can be beneficial and may even strengthen areas of collective action. This is not to say that the greenwashing of products is a valuable advertising practice. Rather, I wish to avoid discounting the companies who have invested effort in the hopes of truly supplying a more environmentally-conscious product. I also want to recognize that individuals can be powerful agents of social change.

But I should open this conversation to you, the readers. You’re consumers of environmental media, and most likely buy environmentally-friendly products. What do you think? Is individual action sufficient? Is it important? Or is it just a way to continue destructive consumer culture?

Reference List

Cobb-Walgren, C., Ellen, P. & Wiener, J. (1991). The Role of Perceived Consumer Effectiveness in Motivating Environmentally Conscious Behaviors. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 10 (2), 102-117. Retrieved July 15, 2010, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Encorp. (2009). Beverage Containers [print ad]. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from http://www.encorp.ca/cfm/index.cfm?It=914&Id=1&Se=38,58

Kumju, H., McDonald, S., Oates, C. & Young, C. W. (2006). Toward Sustainable Consumption: Researching Voluntary Simplifiers. Psychology & Marketing, 23(6), 515–534. Retrieved July 16, 2010, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Goldman & Papson. (1996). Green Marketing and the Commodity Self, Sign Wars, pp. 187-215. NY, New York: Guilford Press.

Maniates, Michael. (2001). Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World? Global Environmental Politics 1(3), 31-52.

Muldoon, Annie. (2006). Where the Green is: Examining the Paradox of Environmentally Conscious Consumption. Electronic Green Journal, 23. Retrieved July 15, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.

Seyfang, Gill. (2005). Shopping for Sustainability: Can Sustainable Consumption Promote Ecological Citizenship? Environmental Politics 14(2), 290-306. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from Google Scholar database.

Trentmann, F. (2007). Citizenship and Consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(2), 147-158.

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Interesting reading Leah! I agree with many of your points. Personally I think individual actions are important, of course. But we will never solve the climate crisis on individual actions alone. For that we need major and far-reaching collective actions, i.e. laws, regulations, subsidies, taxes etc.

What I am worried about is that the "green advertisements" for products like CFLs etc. You know the ones that goes something along the lines of "if you switch your light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs you are saving the planet". Or the ones about recycling like you've mentioned. Sure, if I recycle all my consumed products and if I switch all my light bulbs to CFLs I do help lessen my carbon footprint, and in a way I am saving the planet. But what I am doing is not enough to actually keep climate change under a two degrees increase in global temperatures. For that I, and everyone else around me, need to do so much more. Like eating much less meat, consuming much less gadgets and electronics and stop going on vacations far away by travelling in airplanes. You know, all that hard stuff that never really gets enough attention, because, you know, it's hard. It's much easier to just recycle and change your light bulbs. So I constantly hear people saying: "oh I am very environmentally friendly. I recycle and I've changed all my light bulbs". And then they don't do much more. People get this false optimism about their own actions from the green advertisements that they don't think it's necessary to do anything more, especially not anything that involves using your car less or consume less.

You write that: "Others argue that it is often easier for voices to be heard within the marketplace than within politics. Since companies are afraid of losing business, they may be more likely to respond to public opinion."

I don't agree with this. I mean in a working democracy the politicians are just representing the public and the people's opinions in the parliament. And the politicians should be afraid of losing their votes. This is clearly something that isn't working in the USA. An interesting reading on this subject is Al Gore's book "The Assault on Reason", or my post about the mass media.

So I think it's harder to make your voice heard as a consumer than it is for you as a voter. Corporations and companies are afraid of losing business. Sure. But that doesn't mean that they will listen to the consumers when they demand cleaner and greener products or actions to be taken against climate change. After all, companies and corporations only have a commitment to their shareholders. It's so much easier for them to just spend some money on a new greenwashing advertisement campaign highlighting their "commitment to the environment" in some way. Or change the name of your brand like BP have done in the past, for example. And I haven't seen any large-scale successful boycotts yet. People can't really boycott their local BP or Shell station, because in most countries going by car is the only way to get from point A to point B. For that we need the government to invest massively in public transportation, taxing the gas making it more affordable to go by train or bus than car. Individual actions can't change our auto industry. Corporations rather want to continue "business as usual" if it's makes them money. Only a strong government can push companies and corporations in the right direction with green laws and regulations. If we are going to wait for the companies to change on their own we won't reach a sustainable market in time, if ever.

Wow, my rant got a bit long, sorry about that.

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Nice piece! Thanks very much for drawing on my work. You might want to see a new book just out: Michael Maniates and John Meyers, eds., The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice, MIT Press, 2010. Again, thanks for the compliment of mentioning my work. With all best wishes, Michael Maniates

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Are you serious? The real Michael Maniates that wrote the article? How did you find this? The internet is a strange and wonderful place sometimes. Michael, this article was orginally a paper I wrote for my university class (edited of course, without much of the fomality). The article you wrote really struck a chord with me, as "sustainable consumption" (oxymoron?) is one of the issues I am most passionate about. I will definitely check out that book, and I'm very interested in learning more about this topic.

Thank you so much for responding; I am flattered.

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Simon, I agree with you. Individual action can never be enough. However, perhaps it is a start to engage people so they are interested in doing more. This is my optimistic (and perhaps naive) point of view.

One quick thing: I did not say "Others argue that it is often easier for voices to be heard within the marketplace than within politics. Since companies are afraid of losing business, they may be more likely to respond to public opinion" as my own opinion. I was quoting a point of view from Muldoon (2006). To be honest, I don't quite buy that argument myself (pardon the pun).

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Yes, I agree with you. And it wasn't my intention to imply that it was you who said that. Sorry, my bad! My comment should be seen more as a general rant about this subject. :)

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This is dead on I think. Collective action happens through individual behavior that adds and adds up over a period of time. The support for the individual is not there. Support is not yet there from the government and private entities. It has become trendy for the wealthy and the upper white middle class. When it catches on and is affordable it will change globally and within all classes.

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Nice reply to an interesting article. This (false optimism) is my experience with undergraduates as well. Many of them think that because they recycle they are green, though we point out that meat eating is the leading cause of deforestation/land conversion for agriculture. Will they consider going without meat for a few days a week? Not so far... I think that's the challenge -- to penetrate our comfort zones and appeal to an individual ethic that overconsumption of anything (paper, plastic, meat, precious metals used in electronic gadgets) is poor environmental stewardship and ultimately immoral. It's simply wrong to destroy the environment, for the present and future generations, whether by us incrementally as individuals or in much larger steps by corporations.  I think it's important to advocate individual actions. Communities are made of individuals after all and it's up to individuals to tell corporations and governments that we're doing what we can, why aren't they (this includes talking to our banks about who they are investing with, or moving to greener banks).  The other reason to advocate individual action is because you don't know how far an individual will go. There's the example of Milo Cress, from Vermont, who looked at how many single use straws were being wasted every day and started the "Be Straw Free" project. Milo is in fourth grade. http://bestrawfree.org/

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