If Consumers Don't 'Go Green,' Their 'Eco-awakening' Could Doom Climate | Opinion

Biodiversity loss threatens 1 million animals and plants with extinction. But as we celebrate the U.N.'s International Day for Biodiversity on May 22 we are greeted by a silver lining: Consumers are waking up. There is an "eco-awakening," where environmental consciousness and consumerism intertwine, transforming how we live and interact with the world. However, going green can be tricky. Faced with a lack of transparency, consumers are often unable to make the right choices, dooming the climate unless we adapt transformative solutions.

After the events of 2020, consumers made one thing clear: They want a more sustainable world. The WWF recently reported on this so-called eco-awakening claiming that 93 percent of Europeans consider biodiversity a "very serious" problem, reflecting a change in consumption patterns which will predict how consumers act in the future.

A recent report by Future Market Insights discovered the "organic" skincare market is expected to grow 8.1 percent in the next decade as more people use the experiences of COVID-19, climate change and increasing health problems to influence purchases.

Yet, as more consumers transition to "eco-friendly" choices there is a risk of companies marketing unsustainable products as sustainable in order to meet demand.

Today, the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) released a statement promising to tackle misleading "green" claims after it found 40 percent of globally advertised online products feature false or misleading environmental claims.

The term "organic" has been particularly controversial. A U.K. study discovered organic produce yields 40 percent less than alternatives, therefore requiring up to 1.5 times more land. Consequently, a report from MIT Technology Review found that due to this increase in land—which was often outsourced to vulnerable tropical forests like the Amazon—organic produce releases 21 percent more greenhouse gases than its counterparts.

This "greenwashing," or the attempt to disguise environmentally harmful products as environmentally friendly, will only grow as more consumers transition to sustainable options. This is in part due to a lack of accountability, but also because consumers are often unaware of a commodities true carbon footprint.

And when it comes to protecting biodiversity, these components add up.

Recently there was a push against products containing palm oil—which many consumers do not realize can be sustainably sourced—leading to boycotts and many companies transitioning to soybean oil. However, soy requires almost eight times more land than palm oil and is linked to decreased bird diversity in the Amazon, home to the rarest and most endangered species, where deforestation has reached a 12-year high.

The issue with consumer-led change is, in order for it to be successful, it has to be based on accurate information which brands—and governments—support through transparency and accountability. Studies show that sustainable adaptations like certification schemes and eco-labels contribute to transparency but that many consumers are unsure how to adequately use them in everyday life.

A sign displays recyclable items at an "e-waste" drop-off location inside a Staples store September 29, 2005, in Mount Prospect, Illinois. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

A 2019 study into ecolabeling and consumption in the U.K. found that while 82 percent of respondents recognized the Fairtrade label, only 29 percent would consider Fairtrade when shopping. Further, age, gender, socioeconomic status and education levels all contributed to the likelihood of consumers recognizing ecolabels, indicating there is an information gap in consumer knowledge.

This should not have to happen. Technology, and an increasingly interconnected world, make it possible to create systems which educate all consumers about a products true environmental impact.Studies show that while eco-labels do contribute to sustainability, these processes can be combined with supply chain details—like how a parcel can be tracked, allowing consumers to see a product's journey, from origin to shelf.

New technologies like blockchain can be used, which leverages data to uncover supply chains. And carbon footprints can be calculated in seconds through organizations like Sourcemap, which reveal supply chains through technology and visualization tools to provide consumers—and businesses—innovative tools to make green choices and prevent ecological loss.

And while technology aids consumers in their eco-awakening, government can fill the gaps.

Governments must ensure businesses source their products sustainably through legislation which protects biodiversity, limits deforestation and promotes certification schemes. Malaysia has succeeded in reducing deforestation every year since 2016, in large part because of its nationally mandated and legally enforceable Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme, proving that government enforced regulations can help commodities meet high standards in line with global standards.

Ultimately, if governments and technology combine efforts to adequately support consumers in their quest to become more eco-friendly, then the climate crisis is one step closer to being solved.

The sustainable consumer revolution is coming. Are you ready?

Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specializing in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare. She also concentrates on media and politics in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.