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Sustainability Shaming: Helpful or Harmful?

Sustainability is a hot topic of conversation and debate for people from all generations and geographies, but what does it mean to be sustainable and who should be sustainable? The answers depend on who you ask. As it is mostly expressed in popular culture today, sustainability on an individual level can look like anything from using a personal mug to reduce plastic waste to eating less meat or riding public transportation instead of taking a car. Today, sustainability has taken over social media and has been utilized in branding and marketing campaigns alike, spreading more as people become aware of climate issues.

Some people are adopting extremely “sustainable” lifestyles, cutting out all possible waste and changing to completely plant-based diets. Others are making smaller changes like taking public transportation more often or taking short showers to reduce their carbon footprint. On the other hand, some people don’t make any attempt to be sustainable. Some are unaware of their options or why they should change their actions, while others are simply unable to, sometimes limited by their physical health, location or financial state.

As the sustainability movement grows, many people have become very passionate about the topic and try to spread their ideas by analyzing and influencing the choices of others. Sustainability shaming or eco-shaming is an emerging phenomenon where people ridicule others for acting unsustainably, either by directly calling them out for something like using a plastic container, or indirectly shaming them in conversation or in a public context like a social media comment. In some ways, this process has become a motivating factor and has led to increased knowledge of sustainability and has even inspired people to live more eco-friendly lifestyles. For example, a conservationist and influencer on the sustainable living website Making Roots posted an article about being sustainability shamed at her first conservation job because she was still using tampons. In response, she decided to try the menstrual cup and after a few months of adjustment, she had completely stopped using tampons which generate more waste. Although this is a small change in her lifestyle, it exemplifies how shaming and guilt can sometimes inspire changes in behavior.

However, as the shaming has become more common, many people have intensified their attacks on others, which only disincentivizes sustainable actions and can become harmful. Eco-shaming can occur in any context, but today it is most commonly encountered across social media platforms. Environmental issues gain attention over social media as people share stories, news and express their opinions about what to do and who is to blame. For example, as the issue of plastic pollution popularized, people became more aware of how individual actions contribute to the problem and began to shame those who continued to purchase single-use plastics, such as plastic straws and bags.

For many, the underlying reason for sustainability shaming is to promote change for a healthier planet, and in some scenarios, shaming has led to positive changes for our earth. One famous example of shaming is a Greenpeace video from 2010. The video showed a man eating a Nestle Kit Kat bar which ends up actually being an orangutan finger and to the horror of those around him, he eats it anyway. Greenpeace had the intention to shame Nestle for sourcing palm oil from companies associated with the destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforest. Only two months after posting the video, Nestle announced a new sourcing policy that avoided connections to deforestation. In this situation, shame was intelligently utilized to send an effective message to a major corporation, making a positive difference. This instance exemplifies the positive side of shame, and its ability to challenge rule-breaking companies.

Another target of sustainability shaming is those who take regular flights because planes emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. In Sweden, travelers have invented a word to discourage people from flying, “Flygskam” means flight shame. The growing pressure to avoid flying and the awareness of its negative consequences has directly impacted the aviation industry in Sweden. Domestic flight passengers decreased by 15% in April compared to the year before (2017). A survey from the World Wildlife Fund discovered that a quarter of Swedes choose not to fly in the interest of the planet. Consequently, Swedish railroads saw an influx of two million passengers in 2018. Switching to rail transportation also has a new Swedish word, “Tagskryt.”

There is a line, however, where eco-shaming becomes more harmful than motivating and can take a significant toll on mental health and happiness. Eco-shaming over social media usually consists of an anonymous person commenting on a photo or video or even someone publishing an article criticizing someone for any kind of unsustainable act. Also, as social media influencing has popularized in the past few years, many people feel inherent shame from influencers, who are able to edit the reality of their lives to represent a perfectly sustainable, eco-friendly life. The social media presence of these influencers can make those who are trying to be more sustainable, by making small changes here and there, feel as though they are inadequate or less-than perfect.

While drawing awareness of the climate crisis and the health of the earth is important, many forms of eco-shaming are misguided. Most carbon emissions today are the result of major corporations so the blame should not all be put on the decisions of one person even if they don’t meet eco-friendly guidelines. Shaming may be a catalyst for change at a larger scale, such as the entire country of Sweden, but it is quite alienating and disempowering on a smaller scale, such as in a comment on a social media post.

Instead of shaming those who make unsustainable choices there should be a more inviting and inclusive approach to spreading sustainability awareness. Changing our diet and consuming habits can make a difference in the future of our planet, but it probably won’t be able to save the world on its own. We need to work together to help each other act more sustainably while also putting pressure on companies and governments who have the opportunity to make significant policy changes. Shaming one another only divides us and weakens our power as citizens to persuade and demand change for a healthier planet.

Sources:

Hance, J. (2015, October 12). Employing shame for environmental change. Retrieved from

Making Roots. (2018, July 28). Eco-shaming. Retrieved from https://www.makingroots.co.uk/post/2018-07-24-untitled-1.

Thelen, E. (2018, July 18). ‘Eco-shaming’: Does it work? Retrieved from

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