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A Christmas dichotomy

For many, this might be the first Christmas where the younger generations shame them for their traditional Christmas festivities.

People are going to be told off by snowflakes for the miles travelled over the festive period, the unnecessary consumption of meat and the sacrilege of Christmas decorations designed to strangle the poor sealife.

And nobody’s going to want those lovely Nespresso machines advertised by lovely eco-warrior George Clooney, anymore.

Little Greta Scrooges will look up briefly from their iphones to attack us for our environmental crimes; but it’s not just traditionalists under fire, it’s whole industries.

I totally agree with the sentiment, but back off a bit Greta. There’s ‘flygskam’, flying shame, fast-fashion crimes, the shunning of eating animal products; a small coterie of young consumers are exerting a growing influence on big companies and politicians.

The majority of people, however, are too concerned about how far their wages will stretch, how to keep a roof above their family’s heads, to be too concerned about sustainability. How far do shoppers in the developing world, where airlines, clothes-makers and food producers see growth for decades to come, share the concerns of the shamers in the west?

And yet; even in places where consumerism is peaking, like China, concern for the climate is on the march. There have been vociferous campaigns against fur and plastics and it is fanned by investors looking for the next big thing. A new generation of startups in food and fashion is turning sustainability into a brand, a bit like Tesla did for the car. And it is disrupting big business.

Take flight shame. Started as an expression of personal guilt over your carbon air trail, which accounts for around two percent of global emissions, it has transformed into something like collective culpability.

The movement started in Sweden, where passenger numbers have been falling for more than a year. KLM is asking people to ‘fly responsibly’, telling them, for example, that it is quicker to take the train to Brussels from Amsterdam than to fly. They even have a thing called ‘train-bragging’ (tagskryt).  Awareness about the environmental impact of air travel is spreading.

Earlier this month, UBS, released a study showing 37% of respondents, in eight big countries, have reduced their flying because of flight shame. And Chinese flyers were among the most concerned. Airline valuations are going to be hit.

Both the fashion industry and food making produce more carbon emissions than aviation; they 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 scorn 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 and Zara, 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. They can’t help it if their promos for this look like a spoof of Zoolander.

Vegans against animal products have made the trend towards meat-free food obvious enough for McDonalds and Burger King to inflict their own plant-based burgers on the world. Sweden has an actual ‘milk war’ between Oatly, oat-based drink maker and Arla, a huge dairy manufacturer. You may have seen Oatley’s campaign; ‘It’s like milk but made for humans’. Clever.

In the late 1700s, British abolitionists boycotted sugar and other goods produced by slaves in the West Indies. Since then, action has often focused on specific companies. In the 1990s Nike and Gap were pilloried for their alleged use of ‘sweatshop’ labour and Nestlé has had it in the neck from students since the 80s because of baby formula and most recently in 2010, when it had to deny having the blood of orangutans on its hands, because of palm oil used in KitKats.

Just days ago, Peleton, the fitness company, beloved of celebs, lost billions on the stock market because of a cheesy Christmas advert deemed to be sexist. Not clever.

It is harder to shame general perceived behaviour than it is to go for individual firms. However, companies are going to live in fear of the power of the green backlash. Nespresso are probably wondering how to surreptitiously get rid of millions of their product some time in the not too distant future.

Green contempt is hard to counter and there is a genuine consumer revolution taking place. This Christmas, companies and thoughtless uncles ignore the shamers at their peril.

 

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