Week 42: I will swap and think.
Updated: Apr 30
So far this year, we’ve had a lot of fun with sustainable alternatives to our regular products. We’ve found replacements in almost every room of the home, and almost every corner of our lives. We have celebrated new knowledge, embraced new creations, and likely bored more people than I could ever wish to.
We have plumbed the depths of the freezer, burrowed to the far corners of our store cupboards. We have ditched brands and designs that we truly loved, only to find new ones that we wear and consume with pride. We have learned to cook imaginatively, to fix enthusiastically. We have failed. We have succeeded. We have changed.
It has been in a large part helped by our internet research, our trusted sites, and our newsfeeds. If you've read any of our diary before, you'll know that the intelligence of the great pixelated yonder is something we try and use as a positive and planetwise tool. Of all of the tools, it is our newsfeed that are consistently full of new and exciting alternatives. Our newsfeeds in so many ways promise to change our lives, each scroll more so than the last.
It is a cool place to look for alternative products to the ones we consume, and each new idea is temptingly set-up by a ‘did you know’ fact about the disastrous impact on the environment of what we believed was normal. Each video clip framed in fire, flood, or the pollution caused by each and every ‘fill-in-the-blank-here product’ that we previously thought was a terribly normal and habitual purchase. We are blocking out the sun, we are digging up the earth. Real life drama, compelling us to switch almost anything we can think of to be more planetwise, and to celebrate another step towards ultimate sustainability.
It is this frictionless switching that gave me the idea for this week’s change. Something has happened on my newsfeed. In week 6, back in January, I tried to change it to deliver more ecological and planetwise posts. It has been a great change, but just lately it has exploded with new options to almost every product it thinks we need. Something is not sitting right, and I want to follow this feeling.
This week, I am trying to understand the real value of swapping, at least to me.
Where my head is going, is that although it is clearly a fabulous thing in many ways to have sustainable alternatives to each product we consume, there is just something about the manner this is beginning to happen, that is needling me. Just a gentle prodding, at the back of my mind. Something that is causing me to not quite settle.
At the heart of this, I have questions.
Am I was noticing that more sustainable products are available because I am looking and my technology is learning, or because there were new markets being created all the time for products that claim to be organic, free-from, recycled, or in some other way kinder to the planet? A bit like when you suddenly wonder why there are no yellow cars anymore, and then suddenly, five go past in the space of ten minutes.
The brain can play tricks on you in like that, and because of this frictionless nature of the Internet I would not be surprised that the more engaged we are, the more smoothly our feeds are filled with alternatives. And the more we engage with these, the more we receive on top of those, and the more specific these suggestions become.
I set myself twenty minutes to get the general idea about the state of the 'green' market through a bit of research. I focused mainly on scholarly articles and reports, to try and understand trends, economics, and market shares. To try and remove the edge cases, and instead understand the mainstream.
The results were amazing.
Like a clipart illustration of a graph, every trend line for sustainable products points upwards.
We are willing to pay more for products that make claims about being kinder to the planet, or are the same products but are now packaged in more sustainable ways. It is estimated in some articles that over 50% of the growth in packaged goods in the last five years has come from sustainable products, and that products that are badged as sustainable enjoy roughly five times more growth than comparable non-sustainable products. Over 90% of young people intend to change their lifestyle to be more careful in their purchases. We are no longer reacting, we are seeking out sustainability, we are demanding it and we are rejecting those brands and products who are not considering the planet.
In other words, it’s not me noticing the yellow cars. It is very clear that sustainable products have reached a tipping point. It is no longer so-called hippies making candles in their garages. It is no longer scruffy markets on the fringe. I discovered a Nielsen report that put the projected value of ‘fast moving’ sustainable products (which means the ones you typically buy in a supermarket) and the value just in the US, at as much as $150 billion by next year.
The struggle is over, the planet has won.
This is the but. As exciting and transformational it can be to change every purchase in our lives to one that is more kind for the planet, it feels like it is beginning to miss the point. There are many, many, cool things happening out there, and for kindness for the planet to be designed into products is something to be celebrated.
But. And coming back to my newsfeeds. Creeping into the good stuff, there are products that are starting to make me uncomfortable. It is the feeling that those at the front line of climate change, who are just trying to survive or who are dealing with real uncertainty in their lives, might be starting to feel alienated by the gloss that is beginning to form.
How far do we go, before help becomes capitalisation, becomes exploiting? When do the individuals who are trying to make real change, start to wonder whether organisations who use imagery from their own lives, are starting to promote something that they do not agree with. When do we start to feel that action – real action – does not come from a seamless swap of consumption?
How far have we just started to slap a 'natural' label on things we don't need? We might be reducing the consumption of un-natural products, but shouldn't we always be trying to reduce our consumption overall?
My feeling of unease is also because everything has become suspiciously easy. There is no barrier to see a product, be told you need it, and buying it. There is always a click to buy button. You can always shop now, and you can get anything you want, made better.
I guess this is the point and the discomfort. At what point does the alternative become the wasteful thing? I’m not sure if I need a bamboo belly-button-fluff remover. I’ll just use my finger. I’m also not sure I need a vegan-yarn egg cosy, made on the shores of a Northumbrian fell. I’ll just eat the egg before it gets cold. I’m not sure I’ll swap one commoditised product for another, just because it now comes in a paper bag, or no longer has a plastic window on the box.
I guess it makes sense that new markets for sustainable products are emerging, and it makes sense that individuals, brands and organisations are following this trend. It is also good for us as consumers to follow this. I am also not saying that what I believe is not useful in my life, or not essential in someone else’s. Products that are better for the planet, that we need, are great.
But at the same time, nothing should be an option to consider too. For things that we perhaps don’t need, then producing nothing as an alternative takes no resources. It has no footprint. No bamboo is planted, and no renewable energy is consumed. Nothing does not use a single resource, apart from our own resources to find another way.
It is not really the fault of the entrepreneurs, and the brands who are trying to do better, because they want to grow. They want us to buy, and likely each and every one believes in their cause. It is up to us as consumers to choose what we think is a good swap, and acknowledge that swapping something for nothing is an option too.
I have learned a lot in the last 42 weeks of trying to be planetwise. I have fallen in love with the passion and the creativity of those who are truly trying to make a difference. But I have also grown cynical, of groups that create barriers. We are all connected, but positive connections are broken when we begin to behave in self-interest, for pure commercial gain or when we do other things that alienate.
There needs to be no barriers for everyone to get involved in being kinder to our planet. This means that industry or publicity cannot become bigger than the cause. When we remember the cool slogan but forget the cause. Just because we can swap one product for another, it does not mean we should. When we protest elaborately for the photo. Just because getting arrested is good for the coverage of our personal or group brand, doesn't mean we should do it. Not everyone has these options, especially those at the front line of climate change - those who are being directly affected.
To finish on a positive note.
I do believe in the power of swapping, and I do believe that individual, positive connections are creating amazing new ways of breaking the chain of resources. I do not always mean we should try to reduce rather than swap, because swapping products that we need and that are made from finite resources for those that are made in a kinder way is a fabulous thing. I would also encourage everyone to seek out products that are even clearing up after us. More and more products that we use everyday, are being created using waste plastic. We are creating fashion from fishing nets, we are creating reusable bottles from ocean plastic. These are really easy to find if you make one search before you click-to-buy.
We should also take a pause, and as consumers, we have to be wise and understand the power we have. We have to make hard decisions, and keep our principles of reducing our consumption. It is too easy to simply swap what we current consume for a slightly better version, or a slightly greener one. Resources are still resources, power is still power, consumption is still finite. If we are going to swap, then we must swap consciously. It is too easy to skate along the surface of our decisions when faced with the sophistication of what is in front of us. My Facebook is way cleverer than me, because it is designed by people who are way cleverer than me. But I have the ultimate power as a consumer.
Just as we can walk in the rain rather than take a taxi. I can say no.
What we don’t ask for, doesn’t get made.