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environment-tree
Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

As we enter into the holiday season, it’s impossible to escape American consumerism. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the holidays. I grew up singing at Christmas Eve mass in my church and eating huge dinners with my extended family. However, I don’t like the use of holidays based on giving, to mass market everything from cars to plastic toys. More importantly, I can’t stand the waste that accompanies the holidays. With mountains of wrapping paper, ribbons, bows, and bags, gift-giving is a garbage producing business.  

This year, as I’ve watched the consumerism of the holidays unfold, I began to think about the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism. More and more, people have expressed an unprecedented concern for the implications of climate change and environmental degradation. As of 2018, 59% of Americans cited climate change as being a major threat to our country, a significant increase from even 2013’s 40%. Greta Thunberg, a climate activist who symbolized calls to action around the world, was named Time Magazine’s youngest “Person of the Year” in 2019

I’ve yet to meet an individual who did not believe that protecting our climate was important. This applies to conservatives and progressives alike. So just as I am, you’re probably wondering why we haven't seen any change. The answer you are almost always provided is — those greedy, money-hungry capitalists are killing our planet! Ironically, “capitalists” or “the capitalist class” is always an “other” no matter the profession or financial status of the individual pointing the finger.

Capitalism, not taking into account government regulation, is a market based economic system which is dictated by the consumer. Consumer desire for a good or service results in demand, which then indicates how much of that good or service producers must supply. In simplest terms this means that if you work, buy goods, or pay for services in the United States you are participating in capitalism. This type of market (particularly with limited regulation) is also very sensitive to changes in consumer preferences, and responds to the different buying patterns of those dictating demand. Now what does all this mean for the environment?

Well, I’d encourage you to ask any one of those individuals who claim to tout environmental activism what their everyday purchasing practices and actions look like. Do they only purchase goods with biodegradable packaging? Do they compost their additional food? Do they use reusable cups and bags? Do they invest in environmentally sustainable companies? Do they refrain from using Amazon, which emitted an equivalent of 44 million metric tons of CO2 in 2018? My bet would be that most of their environmental prioritization fizzles out when it comes to their wallet. Why aren’t people putting their money where their mouth is?

The majority of us have been convinced that big corporations are solely at fault for environmental degradation and only the government can provide the solutions. Statistically speaking corporations do act as large emitters of greenhouse gasses. For example, the top 15 American food and beverage companies generate nearly 630 million metric tons of these gasses

However, very often conveniently simplistic Instagram posts touting “capitalism kills” and stats on companies’ environmental impacts fail to acknowledge where those companies size and power comes from: us. The beauty of a market economy particularly in comparison with other economic systems, is the power it instills in the consumer. Nothing motivates these companies more than their bottom line, which plays to our advantage, and the environment’s if we do our part.

Similarly, people often fail to acknowledge that the primary producer of greenhouse gasses is actually China, producing 27.52% of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2018, or almost double that of the United States. Much of this is due to manufacturing. China has significantly limited environmental regulation even when compared to the US. As China’s top trading partner, making up 16.8% of their total exports, American consumers need to make more intelligent decisions about what products they buy and where they were made. 

Rather than blaming the system, or the rich, or the government, we need to take personal responsibility for our role in perpetuating environmental degradation and waste. The waste produced by these companies is a direct reflection of our misuse of our purchasing power. Hold companies accountable, stop buying their products. When their bottom line is detrimentally affected they will be forced to change their practices. 

In the age of mass information and transparency, a lack of ethical consumption in the name of convenience is inexcusable. The more we continue to deflect responsibility at “capitalists” while continuing to fill their pockets, the more rapidly our environment is going to degrade. We need to make it unprofitable for companies to not choose sustainability.

Similarly, we should hold our University accountable (I’d argue we are well-paying consumers) for sustainability. While Penn has increased it’s environmentally focused coursework with the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences & Management and the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, which includes a minor students can take, it has lofty promises to fulfill with its 2014 Climate Action Plan 2.0. Despite being one of the foremost universities in the world, it simply isn’t leading on climate or environmental research as pointed out by Dr. Jared Farmer at this week’s Penn Lightbulb Café Event: This Land is My/Our/Their Land.

As you purchase your holiday gifts this season, think about making your money green. Don’t just advocate for environmental activism, make conscious choices. Buy biodegradable wrapping paper, purchase ethically sourced products, give your dollars to companies moving towards sustainable energy consumption. Give back this season, not just to each other, but to our planet as well. Even more, when you reach campus this spring, hold Penn to the standard your tuition money deserves and don’t let the college life strive for “convenience” excuse you from ethical consumption.

Labeling capitalism as the economic system of “wealthy corporate America” fails to give the American people the credit and personal responsibility they deserve for their economic decisions. Let’s put our money where our mouth is and make capitalism sustainable.

LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College first-year student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her email address is abb628@sas.upenn.edu.

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