State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Individually, We Can’t End Climate Change. But That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Try.

clothing on hangers
Photo: Pixabay

At the start of 2022, I set a goal for myself: no new clothing purchases for a year.

This didn’t mean that I couldn’t buy clothes; it meant that they had to be vintage. Garments that have existed for decades, no longer guilty of extracting virgin materials from the earth and adding more carbon to our atmosphere.

New to me, but not new.

I was three weeks out from beginning my Sustainability Management master’s program at Columbia University, and I felt it necessary to live up to the expectations of how a student of sustainability should be living: by consuming less, and when necessary, by consuming responsibly.

I made it just five months before I caved and bought a button-down from Uniqlo. To lessen the betrayal to our planet, I opted for a 100% cotton shirt. At least it wasn’t plastic.

I felt hypocritical, and guilty. But many argue that small unsustainable decisions like the one I made hardly matter. Sustainability author Elizabeth Cline wrote that the “ethical consumer,” the person who buys only organic and fair trade, is powerless against corporations and their quest for endless financial growth. She says that she sleeps well in her “unethical pajamas” knowing that it’s not our responsibility to fix the planet; it’s up to companies and governments.

I don’t sleep as well with this knowledge.

I wonder how it is we can come together collectively to demand change if in our individual lives we change nothing. It’s true that we’re not afforded too many options to lead eco-friendly lives. Most of us don’t have the means to grow our own food, or travel without a car, or compost.

We have neither the time nor resources to conduct an audit of all the companies we buy from to verify their commitment to sustainability, and even if we did, we would likely find ourselves with few truly green products and services to choose from. Still, I struggle to see how that translates to buy whatever, do whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Many of the people closest to me are also white and upper-middle class, educated and aware of the disasters climate change is bringing. They are people who care about the world around them and have some means to help improve it, so I encouraged them to make sustainable goals for themselves, too.

We’re a privileged group, one that has arguably benefited from the same power structures that have led us to this pivotal do-or-die moment. We can afford to be inconvenienced a bit in the name of, if not doing what is right, at least doing what is less wrong. Our choices do matter. It’s been both frustrating and baffling that my friends and family have remained mostly static in their routines.

My sister frequently experiences anxiety about the future of our planet. She also told me recently that she needs to buy three new outfits for her birthday weekend.

A longtime friend has expressed his anger towards governments for not implementing better environmental policy and regulations. He is considering taking a job in big oil.

My dad blames many of the world’s environmental problems in part on Jeff Bezos, but orders something new from Amazon almost daily.

I’m a student at one of the preeminent sustainability programs in the country. I take long showers, love traveling by plane, and just bought several tops I don’t need because they were on sale.

Once, a classmate articulated the importance of equity within sustainability, stating that there is no true progress if marginalized groups are left behind. Then she admitted that of course she impulsively buys things she doesn’t need, blaming this habit on being merely a victim of the system in which she lives.

I’m not buying it. We are not cogs in a machine. We can make better choices, though some are admittedly easier than others. Eating less red meat is a simple switch. Learning to feel satisfied with what we already have takes time, but it can be done. Purchasing an electric vehicle is still out of reach for many, but not all. Those of us with the privilege of choice should be exercising it wisely, forming new habits that better match with our ethics, and practice what we preach.

I recently spent an hour browsing swimsuits online. I didn’t buy anything. My choice didn’t save the world, but it may have helped from making it worse.

Isabel Oskwarek is a student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Elizabeth L. Cline
Elizabeth L. Cline
1 year ago

Hi Isabel, Thanks for reading my story, “The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer.” I’m very excited to see you are part of SUMA as well. I want to clarify that the point of my essay is not that change happens through government and companies only, as you describe, but through individuals like you and me participating in collective action in the public sphere. This type of collective action can be done through organizing to pressure companies to make change or reach a set of demands (like to divest from fossil fuels, stop using virgin polyester, stop overproducing or pay living wages) or to pass new laws, elect new leaders that support climate action or to better enforce laws, and so on. The article is encouraging individuals to engage with change and learn how to make change beyond the marketplace, which is where we have a lot of power that’s currently very underutilized. These are themes I discuss in my Fashion Policy class at SUMA as well. Hope that helps!

Isabel Oskwarek
Isabel Oskwarek
Reply to  Elizabeth L. Cline
8 months ago

Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reading my article and leaving a comment! To clarify, where my opinion differs from the one you present in your article is not in the importance of collective action to fight for systemic change, but rather that our smaller, individual decisions in the marketplace are irrelevant. I believe we need to examine and adjust our individual behaviors in tandem with demanding policy and economic reform in order to slow climate change globally.

I appreciate your engagement with my piece. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to take your course while I was at SUMA, I think it would have been fascinating!