IN SOME HOUSEHOLDS ’tis the season to be jolly cross. A young generation of climate Scrooges will be on the warpath this Christmas, ticking everyone off for the air miles travelled, Santa’s carbon footprint, gorging on meat and the sacrilege of lighting a log fire. It is not as if, like Dickens’s Scrooge, they think that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” After all, boiling and burying would also release carbon dioxide. But as emissions rise, the killjoys are resorting to shame and repulsion as weapons against environmental evils. It is not just parents who are in the line of fire. Whole industries are, too.
From flygskam, or flight shame, to spurning fast-fashion to shunning meat, a relatively small number of young consumers exert a growing influence on big corporations—and politicians who regulate them. It is easy to dismiss the zealots. By and large they are Western, wealthy, well-educated and “woke”. Much larger numbers fret about how far their next pay-cheque will stretch to trouble themselves with issues of environmental sustainability. And it is unclear to what extent shoppers in the developing world, where airlines, garment-makers and food producers see growth for decades to come, share the Western shamers’ concerns.
Yet even in consumer hotbeds like China, climate consciousness is on the rise. It enjoys an Instagram-fuelled tailwind from successful campaigns against plastics and fur. Everywhere it is amplified by a small but growing coterie of investors not just worried about climate change, but looking for the next big thing. In fashion and food, a new generation of startups is turning sustainability into a brand, as Tesla has done for cars. Some of this may be greenwash. But it is disrupting huge businesses.
Take flight shame. It began as an expression of personal guilt over one’s carbon air trail, which is high per passenger and cumulatively accounts for about 2% of global emissions. But it has transformed into something closer to collective culpability. Some airlines, especially in northern Europe, are taking it seriously. In Sweden, where the movement was born, passenger numbers have been falling for more than a year (though some of that may be down to a slowing economy). KLM, a Dutch carrier, is urging customers to “fly responsibly”—even telling them that it is quicker to take the train to Brussels from Amsterdam than to fly. (In Swedish, flygskam’s corollary is tagskryt, or train-bragging.) Awareness about the environmental impact of air travel is spreading. On December 9th UBS, a bank, released a study showing that 37% of respondents in a survey of eight big countries have reduced air travel in the past year out of flight shame. Chinese flyers were among the most concerned. Investors are, too. Citi, another lender, says flight shame makes the industry’s current demand forecasts look “uncomfortably high”. It could hit corporate valuations.
In fashion and food shame is rearing its head, too. Both produce far more carbon emissions than aviation, use huge amounts of water and pollute soils and rivers. Fast-fashion, led by brands such as Zara and H&M, has vastly increased the number of collections sold each year. The resulting throwaway culture has drawn the ire of Western activists. Emerging-market shoppers may join the backlash. Even if they do not, clothing firms feel obliged to show that they are doing something to clean up their act. This summer 32 of the world’s best-known garment-makers, including Gap, Nike, H&M Group and Zara’s owner, Inditex, forged a pact to make fashion less dirty. They are twitchy that alternatives to fast-fashion, such as resale and rental clothing, which promote the peaceful coexistence of altruism and narcissism, might be on the rise.
Vegan vitriol against animal products can resemble that of “Carnage”, a British film from 2017 in which bucolic youngsters 50 years hence look back with disgust on their forebears’ consumption of flesh and milk meant for calves. A voice-over likens Paul McCartney’s promotion of “meat-free Mondays” to “ethnic-cleansing-free Tuesdays”. The film may be a satire, but the trend towards meatlessness is real enough for fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King to be introducing plant-based burgers, made by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Sweden, for its part, is in the throes of a long-running “milk war” between Oatly, an oat-drink producer, and Arla, a dairy multinational. Oatly has run an ad campaign that says of its product: “It’s like milk but made for humans.” The dairy industry hates it.
Sugar and spice and all things nasty
Using consumption to make political or ethical statements is not new. Lawrence Glickman of Cornell University, author of a history of the subject, likens today’s shaming culture to that in the run-up to the American revolution, when anti-British merchants in the colonies refused to sell the crown’s goods. Protesters wore homespun clothing and ostracised those who drank English tea—even the stuff washed ashore after the Boston Tea Party. In the late 1700s British abolitionists, especially women, boycotted sugar and other goods produced by slaves in the West Indies. Since then, action has more often focused on specific companies. In the 1990s Nike and Gap were pilloried for their alleged use of “sweatshop” labour. In 2010 Nestlé had to fend off a campaign alleging that it had orangutans’ blood on its hands because oil palms which provided ingredients for KitKats had replaced the apes’ jungle habitat. This month Peloton, an exercise-bike company, got into hot water over a Christmas ad some deem sexist.
It is harder to shame diffuse behaviour than individual firms. Green-tinged scorn may prove hard to sustain. But it is also hard to counter—the shamers love to trash firms’ cuddly marketing guff. As with any consumer trend, few will be as committed as pious early adopters. But they can herald a genuine revolution. Companies ignore them at their peril. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Green with shame”