If you’ve ever worried about your carbon footprint or felt bad for forgetting to bring your tote bag to the shops, it’s likely you’ve experienced ‘green guilt’. Green guilt describes the feeling we get when we realise that we should or could be doing more to counteract the impact our modern life has on the environment.

We might switch to energy saving light bulbs, cut out animal products in our diet, or even decide never to travel by plane again, like in the example of environmentalist Greta Thunberg who travelled to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit with the help of a racing yacht belonging to a member of Monaco’s royal family. Her radical act of defiance is now enshrined in a Wikipedia page called ‘Voyage of Greta Thunberg’. 

In comparison to her carbon neutral trip, thousands of other attendees arrived by plane. 

Coined by Swedish singer Staffan Lindberg in 2017, ‘flight shame’, or flygskam as it is called in Swedish, is a movement to stop or significantly reduce the activity of frequent fliers through for example bans on short-haul flights. Thunberg’s voyage undoubtedly popularised the movement further, leading to another term the Swedes call tågskryt, or ‘train brag’, which encourages people to travel by train rather than airplane. You will find over 600 images on Instagram with the hashtag tågskryt where people brag about choosing train travel over more polluting methods of travel. 

What is crucial in this example of shaming is that it goes beyond addressing the guilt of one individual. It created a whole new social norm around travelling which led to a 4% decrease in passenger numbers in 2019, and 8% for shorter domestic flights. In the meantime, the country’s state-owned train operator saw an 8% increase in the first quarter of the year. While the airline industry saw the movement as a clear threat, at the end of 2019, easyJet said it would offset carbon emissions from all its flights, becoming the world’s first major airline to do so. The plan would cost about £25 million through schemes like planting trees and avoiding the release of additional carbon dioxide. In January this year, Boeing Co announced their fleet will be able to fly on 100% biofuel by 2030.

Changing an environmentally harmful culture around travel can go a long way in influencing the big players in the industry. But the more personal green guilt often overshadows the role corporations play in the climate crisis, the less of a chance we have of solving systemic, environmental problems which are inevitably interlinked with social ones, both on a national or even global scale. 

The shift from collective to personal responsibility has gone so far that the WWF (World Wide Fund) even offers a ‘Footprint Calculator’ where you can find out what impact you have on the environment. During one set of questions, an illustration of a lightbulb pops up on one side that says: “How you use your energy at home plays a big part in your carbon impact on the world.” What it doesn’t tell me is the fact that “getting one single company to reduce its emissions by just 10 percent has a greater impact than getting every single American to agree to live in the dark.” This quote was written by Jennifer Jacquet, author of Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool. In the book, she outlines some ideas on how we can use shame and guilt in a more productive way, such as when used to fuel climate action. For this to be effective, we need to shift the way we use shame as a tool for changing individual consumption to a means of resistance against those who hold power. 

WWF’s Footprint calculator estimated my footprint was about the UK’s average, and that my travel consumption equalled three medium haul flights. One of the tips to combat this is to cycle, which is quite frankly a little hard for me to do because A) I don’t own a bike, but mostly B) I live 12 miles away from university and 15 miles away from work because I can’t afford to live closer (I worked in a bar at the time of writing). Much like many others who live in London’s Deep South, I rely on the bus to get to the next big Tesco as there are only corner shops near me, which already ticks off WWF’s recommendation to use public transport. I don’t even own a car, so ‘driving smarter’ wouldn't be an option either.

One of the many reasons why a sole focus on the individual will inevitably fail the environmental movement is because many people rely on structural changes to make more environmentally friendly decisions. For example, data from Public Health England in 2018 showed that deprived areas have five times more fast food outlets than affluent areas. This is one of many reasons why shaming people for not replacing their £3 chicken and chips with a £9 Pukka bowl should leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. It comes as no surprise that children from poorer areas are also twice as likely to be overweight, making the argument about personal responsibility around obesity obsolete. In short, environmentally friendly consumption choices are often exclusive to those who can afford it, not those who are morally superior to others. 

But the limitations of individual responsibility are not just impacted by structural inequalities. They start with human psychology. We only have to look at moral licensing, which is a process in which we justify bad behaviour because we’ve collected enough ‘moral credit’ through good behaviour. The theory shows that people are able to act immorally without damaging their self-image if others around them have witnessed their good behaviour: Their moral credit offsets future wrongdoings. But moral licensing doesn’t just happen on an individual level. Studies have shown that a company’s corporate social irresponsibility is often licensed because of the moral credits achieved through their prior corporate social responsibility. It also impacts racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. For example, when non-sexist participants were given opportunities to build their moral credit by for example disagreeing with sexist statements, they were more likely to commit sexist behaviours in the tasks that followed. Organisations can also create gender bias by establishing moral credentials through promoting meritocracy. Unsurprisingly, moral licensing also impacts green behaviour. 

In Jacquet’s book, she mentions a 2009 study that showed that “participants who were exposed to green products in a computer-simulated grocery store acted more generously in experiments that followed, but participants who actually purchased green products over conventional ones then behaved more selfishly.” Another 2013 study confirmed suspicions about slacktivism when the research showed that people who attempted to present a positive image of themselves through token behaviour - like signing a petition or “liking” causes on social media - were less likely to engage with the cause in a meaningful way later in comparison to those who made private gestures. 

 

Supermarkets have made an effort to shift responsibility onto the consumer by for example providing more ‘eco-friendly’ options. In the US, some products promise eco-certification such as the Organic Agriculture Standard, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, while in Europe, we find a so-called ‘organic standard in Europe’ administered by the EU, sometimes also called ‘biological agriculture’. While these are good first steps towards supporting a greener market, whether someone adopts this eco-certification in their market sector can depend on the public awareness and appreciation for sustainability, or on an already established consensus that the expense of a certification program is worth the money. What this means is that a large chunk of the decision power is still in the hands of the consumer. For as long as we can merely decide to buy the more sustainable option instead of making it a necessary standard to preserve our environment in all aspects, there will always remain big parts of the global market that are unsustainable. The biggest chunk of responsibility needs to lie with the system, not those who feed it. 

 

One of the most notorious examples of using shame as a tool against corporations is Greenpeace’s 2010 campaign against Nestlé sourcing palm oil from unsustainable suppliers. Greenpeace produced a parody of Kit Kat’s slogan “Have a break; Have a Kit Kat”' to direct attention towards their use of palm oil which resulted in unsustainable clearing of the Southeast Asian rainforest, which is home to countless animals including the orangutan. In the video, an office worker unwraps a Kit Kat on his break, only to find an orangutan finger. Seemingly unaware of this, he chews on it anyway as blood spurts out everywhere to the horror of his colleagues. It follows with a slide saying “Give the orang-utan a break…” and a series of clips showing the destruction of its habitat. The video ends with a loud and clear call-to-action: “Stop Nestlé buying palm oil from companies that destroy the rainforests”, and a still showing the orangutan finger bleeding out next to the office worker’s keyboard. 

 

The story was picked up by specialist media such as Greenbiz and Treehugger, as well as various news media from the Guardian to Reuters. Commentary from blogs also contributed to the conversation about palm oil, accounting for a whopping 70% of the discourse on the web within a six month period. All of these forces combined, with additional pressure from NGOs, led to significant business losses, reflected by a dip in its share price for Sinar Mas, a major Indonesian palm oil producer and supplier responsible for deforestation and peatland clearances. Nestlé was keen to restore their damaged reputation, so only two months after the video went viral, they announced a new sourcing policy for their products. Not only that, but Greenpeace’s campaign seemed to have a ripple effect on other industries too: Their pressure on HSBC, which used to invest in Sinar Mas, dropped its investment, and a focus on the paper and pulp industry led other multinational companies backing out in fear of damaging their reputations. 

 

A lot can be done if shaming is used against the right targets. The ability of organisations to expose misconduct or unsustainable practices to the public has been a hugely successful tool to enforce more ethical standards. But it’s worth keeping in mind that exposing every single slumlord, polluter or rainforest destroyer runs the risk of normalising bad behaviours because of how common they are. For example, during the Sinar Mar crisis, big chains ranging from Pizza Hut to KFC didn’t respond to the problems at all and continued business as usual.

If we want to use shame effectively, we need to be specific when pointing to the corporations causing harm while emphasising that better practices are not just desirable, but should become part of a new norm that leaves everyone better off after all.