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Canvas bags won't save the world

I was standing at the supermarket checkout armed with four reusable canvas bags and the smug smile that comes with the uncontrollable pride of doing good. My honourable canvas bags were saving the world and I wanted everyone – especially that man with the plastic bags in checkout lane four – to know it. Although my grin faded slightly at the bill after my organic bananas and vegan facewash were scanned through, I grit my teeth and scanned my card. I was comforted by the fact that I was ‘voting with my wallet’ and ‘being the change I wished to see’.

We’re all familiar with those earnest social movement catchphrases. It’s often those little mantras like ‘it all adds up’ that persuade us to sacrifice ease, time or money in pursuit of more ethical lives. And it’s true, it does add up, just not in the way we think it does.

See, voting with your wallet sounds pretty great. I mean, who doesn’t want to be empowered with a rush of selfless altruism every time they purchase something? But in truth, all of these little sayings are founded on the concept that people can collectively save the environmental state of the world through their individual consumption habits; an idea that doesn’t actually hold up super well when faced with the facts.

Awareness around climate change and sustainability first hit mainstream media in 2006 with the terrifyingly pessimistic documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Al Gore’s film brought to light the harsh consequences of human’s treatment of the planet and the impending destruction if changes weren’t made. However, the response on behalf of commentators and advocates wasn’t policy changes by governments or sustainability standards for global corporations but a mass systemic misdirection towards personal consumption. Simply put, instead of putting the responsibility on large companies and groups, we were told that the world could be saved if only we took shorter showers, cycled to work and used canvas bags.

Consumers acted accordingly, with studies like Colmar Brunton’s 2017 ‘Better Future’s Report’ finding that commitment to sustainable lifestyles is increasingly influencing customer behaviour. The biggest changes involved public transport, not using plastic bags and paying more for sustainable products. And while this is a positive step that feels empowering, both economic and empirical studies on consumer behaviour show that individuals alone can’t solve wide-scale, systemic issues, especially when the issue is the global environment, where individual consumption is never more than a quarter of total consumption. The Carbon Majors Report has found that 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global carbon emissions. 100 companies.

So while we’re changing our lightbulbs, taking the bus and patting ourselves on the back for being good eco-warriors, we’re being distracted from what can actually make a difference; our democratic power. This doesn’t mean that you should throw away your canvas bags and start driving a diesel truck. But it does mean that the most effective thing we can do is use our influence and start demanding higher standards from the higher powers.

The World Wildlife Fund NZ’s solution strategy agrees with me, as their solution strategy claims that a sustainable future must be led by strong policy-makers.

This means that the key to a renewable New Zealand lies less with compostable smoothie bowls or organic cotton tee-shirts and more with voting forms and national petitions. So you want to care about this beautiful little earth and are unsure of where to start? Well then make yourself a hot cup of Fairtrade coffee and do some self-educating! The world wide web is a neat place where you can get informed and get connected. Do some digging on the Government’s environmental policies, past actions and plans for the future. Check out AUT’s current sustainable development plan and have your say. Find a community, an event or a volunteer position with a group who are standing up against unsustainable systems. Research what your university or workplaces’ policies are around mass recycling or renewable energy and, who knows, they may even have a club for you to join. Google the Paris Agreement and find out how New Zealand stacks up against other countries in the race to renewable energy.

Sure, getting educated isn’t nearly as trendy or Instagrammable as compostable smoothie bowls or wearing organic cotton tee-shirts, but it is more effective. And who says you can’t do both?

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