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The media creation of consumer activism

Rebrand BP campaign

Rebrand BP campaign image

By Victoria Goff
Special to the Michigan Citizen

It’s been a long trip, but after months of writing and reflecting about what environmental justice principles have to do with food and digital justice, the Justice Communicators have finally reached the last environmental justice principle.

Principle 17 states, “Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and re-prioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.”

The interesting thing about this principle is that it is listed last. In today’s political environment, consumer choices are often presented as the activism of choice (indeed, many times, the only choice) when it comes to the environment. Why, then, would it be listed last out of all of the principles as if it is the least important? Understanding the environmental justice movement through the lens of digital justice helps to answer that question. But first we’ll need to back up a bit.

When you think of the “green economy” or “green jobs” or any variation of “green” as it relates to the environment, what do you think of? For me, the most immediate thing I think of is “money.” Specifically, buying green will create jobs or help the economy. There is no set list of items that are considered “green” and there really is no meaningful criteria of what qualifies any particular item as “green.”

But if you buy green, it will help somehow. Or so we are told. Because I have no idea what qualifies as “green,” (and I actually have a few questions as to what “green” itself even means) when I’m at the store I look for “green” indicators. Specifically, if I have a choice between the normal cleaning product I usually get or that same product with key phrases like “safe” or “environmentally friendly” coupled with friendly looking flowers or trees printed on the packaging, I will usually buy the “green” product.

But even as I use media as a way to decide what is “green” (and as such, what I should be buying), I rarely question who is making the media that is influencing my choice or what relationship that media-making entity has to the environment.

Most times I don’t even consider the indicators I search for, like “environmentally friendly” or pretty flowers, to be intentionally crafted media made with the specific intention of influencing buyer’s decisions.

This lack of knowledge wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that “buying green,” as I stated earlier, is often presented as the most important method of environmental activism. So, if buying green is the only type of environmental activism that far too many of us are engaging in, what does it mean that most of us have no meaningful information or education on how to engage in this activism critically? And what does it mean that so many corporations (like the corporations making “green” media) have little to no accountability to the communities most in need of “green” action?

Right now, it means that corporations are appropriating environmental justice language in an effort to sell products and even clean up their suffering images. Take, as an example, the oil company British Petroleum.

BP has suffered a worldwide image problem on several fronts: farmers in Columbia sued over environmental damage to land they say was inflicted by BP. Activists in Britain charged BP with “green washing” after it was revealed that BP’s 2008 budget included $20 billion in fossil fuel investment and $1.5 billion in all alternative forms of energy.

Closer to home, the catastrophic damages caused by the Gulf oil spill are still coming to light, which has led to protests by women’s rights groups, environmentalists and even the fishing industry.

What does a corporation that is taking such heavy hits in public opinion do? BP turned to its media team. In 2008, BP rolled out their now infamous green and yellow flower logo that was specifically designed to appeal to the “green” consumer. Of course, activists pointed out that the flower did not represent actual industry changes by the corporation, seeing as BP spent more money on designing the logo than they did on creating environmentally friendly energy sources, but the logo had the desired effect. BP was applauded for recognizing that global warming was real and taking steps to address it.

After the oil spill, BP again turned to their media team and began rolling out intimate commercials with friendly talking heads assuring viewers that BP was sorry and was cleaning up the spill as quickly and efficiently as it could, even as it remains to be seen whether that is true or not.

By uncritically accepting that “buying green” is the only type of environmental activism and that any product with a flower or claiming to be green actually is green, we are buying into media campaigns that are designed to comfort consumers into a false sense of security even as environmental destruction continues unabated. How many other major corporations are using media and our lack of education as a method to escape accountability?

In placing consumer choices last out of all the principles, the environmental justice organizers who created the principles were recognizing that corporations have spent too much time emphasizing consumer choices as environmental activism. Organizers were radically reconsidering what the environmental movement can and should be. They were saying that any environmental justice movement must be about justice, not about what we buy.

Victoria Goff is a communications coordinator at East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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