Why We Need to Hold Corporations Accountable
Do you know how big your carbon footprint is?
The term that was created in 2004 has since become the measurement guideline for eco-minded individuals around the world - holding themselves accountable, recycling, reducing, and doing all they can to reduce their carbon footprints.
Which is great. It is up to all of us to do our part to save our beautiful planet from the effects of climate change. But are we focusing on the right levers that will create the change needed to actually help the fight?
To understand this question further, we need to look back at where the term “carbon footprint” actually came from.
Where it all began
“It’s time to go on a low carbon diet.”
It’s a catchy quote, and there is plenty each of us can do to live a low carbon lifestyle. But knowing this ad campaign originated from British Petroleum - the second largest non-state-owned oil company in the world with 18,700 service stations worldwide - the same company that is responsible for the infamous and devastating Gulf Oil Spill in 2010 - made us wonder what their intention was.
It turns out BP wanted to remind its consumers that we’re all in this fight for the planet together - meaning that we, as individuals, as well as corporations, share the burden of mitigating the effects of climate change.
BP hired a well-known public relations firm to spread the word, and the marketing ploy was a huge success. It motivated people to “do their part”. The term “carbon footprint” was popularized, and “carbon calculators” were created so we each could calculate our carbon footprints.
But the unspoken messaging implied that BP was doing their part too - going on a “low carbon diet”.
Today, BP is still one of the largest oil producers in the world. Their “low carbon diet” reduced their 4 million barrels a day in 2005 to 3.8 million barrels today. In 2019, they acquired one of the largest new oil and gas reserves in West Texas that gave the oil giant “a strong position in one of the world’s hottest oil patches”. And in 2018, BP invested a minuscule 2.3 percent of its budget on renewable energies.
If this were an actual diet, we would consider that a fail.This brings us back to our individual carbon footprints. Will addressing our carbon footprints make a difference for the planet if corporate giants like BP are still polluting the planet?
To answer this question, we need to understand what an actual carbon footprint is, and how it contributes to climate change.
What is a carbon footprint?
We all have a carbon footprint. Even a homeless person who owns nothing emits 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Carbon is a chemical element, like hydrogen, oxygen, or lead. Everything contains carbon as these molecules are the basic building blocks of humans, animals, plants, trees, and soils. If you weigh 100 pounds, you’re 18 pounds of pure carbon. Even plants are almost half carbon.
Alone, carbon is neutral. But when combined with oxygen, it becomes carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas (CO2) that primarily involves the burning of fossil fuels (gas and coal). Greenhouse gas traps heat close to Earth. It’s not all negative as it helps the Earth to hold on to some of the energy that it gets from the Sun.
If it weren't for this greenhouse effect, Earth's oceans would be frozen solid. Which is good. But where it gets bad is when there is too much CO2, causing the Earth’s temperature to rise, leading to more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and other detrimental and irreversible changes.
So what is a “carbon footprint” if everything on the planet has one? In simple terms, it’s all of these gases bundled together in one term, heating the Earth’s surface, and now causing irreversible climate change.
Therefore, knowing industrial processes, waste, and agriculture hold some of the biggest responsibility for emissions, and also knowing the biggest emitter is from the energy industry - does addressing our carbon footprints really matter when all is said and done?
Accountability and responsibility
We really should thank BP for inventing the term “carbon footprint”. While the motivation was to divert our attention from their growing carbon footprint and turn it into a shared responsibility for the globally disrupted climate, in some respects they empowered people to make personal choices that do help the planet.
It does matter to recycle bags, buy natural products, drive electric cars, and plant gardens. To put it in context, if everyone recycled just one can, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 6,750 passenger cars off the road and save energy equivalent to 80 thousand barrels of oil.
In the same way, you can also make real change with fashion - and it doesn’t mean you have to replace your entire wardrobe with eco-conscious clothing. The best thing to do is to actually STOP buying clothing overall. Stop supporting fast fashion. And when you do shop, choose higher-quality pieces that last longer. It will help your budget AND the planet.
Caring for the garments you already own - reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle, and upcycle - it all matters.
But to really make a dent in climate change, we as consumers can do even more.
And that is, use our voices and actions as consumers to drive effective change in the corporate and legislative world.
“Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
The largest actions need to come from the largest entities. No ordinary person can slash one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Our power to make a dent in climate change is found in our voices, our actions, and our advocacy. We must place a distinction between personal and industrial actions, and hold those accountable, responsible.
Vocalizing our values
We don’t HAVE values - we ARE our values. Taking personal responsibility for our carbon footprints is essential and empowering. But our personal power doesn’t stop there.
When we use our voices and actions to support companies that share our eco-conscious values and the type of world we want to live in, we also send powerful messages to corporate polluters of what we don’t support.
Holding the top polluters accountable for change is how change can happen. And when it comes to the government, we can support candidates that don’t accept funding from coal, gas, and oil lobbyists and pay attention to existing legislation around production and distribution practices.
And then there is fast fashion. In today’s insta-shopping society, it’s easy to get caught up unconsciously supporting a world of polluting and toxic clothing companies with the click of a button. Knowing the facts about toxic chemicals used in the production of fast fashion and understanding that greenwashing includes telling you to “buy less” but promoting mass consumption with constant new releases - you can speak a powerful message to them by not supporting them.You make your values known when you vote with your dollars. Holding brands accountable is powerful because their lifeblood depends on your support.
One of the best things that emerged from the pandemic in 2020, was the forced focus for brands on the issue of sustainability. Spending habits drastically switched overnight, and fast fashion brands were forced to address their sustainability initiatives. And as new sustainable brands rise up, originators like Nui have become examples for what a sustainable business should look like.
In the end, our carbon footprints matter. They do. As individuals, we need to be accountable - and part of that accountability is not just in our carbon footprints, but in holding polluting corporations responsible. When we work together, our actions and our self-empowerment will shape our climate future. We cannot be complacent.
After all, if we’re still buying it, they’re still making it.