Is zero waste a neoliberal daydream?

Socially, neoliberalism is seen in the idea that individuals control their own fate through their own choices. A common criticism of zero waste and personal efforts against climate change is that it is a result of the neoliberal belief in the absolute power of the individual. It is argued that that the problem of waste and climate change is systematic and can’t be solved at an individual level. While at the surface personal efforts against climate change might seem futile or even delusional, the changing impact and climate of personal participation in politics is misunderstood and the individual can make a greater contribution than in the past.

To discuss these issues, I will cite Bennet and Gouldson & Sullivan, referenced at the end of this post. From Bennet I pull information about large-scale individualized action in politics, or the dynamics and success of many of people working for the same goal. The study from Gouldson and Sullivan focuses on the world’s 25 largest retailers and compares the impacts of internal and external pressures on the regulation of environmental issues in Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the US and the UK, where the companies are from; in other words, the study is about what made the largest retailers in the world change their policies to fight climate change.

There is no getting around the fact that the role of the regular person in making large scale change is a nuanced and complicated topic, and you’ll also see that this a bit long, so I’ve bolded some of the key points for anyone simply skimming through. As I said before, it’s not a simple topic and to have the best understanding, you should absolutely read the whole thing. And if you’ve ever wondered how we zero wasters can make a difference, read on.

If not me, who?

This is the era of personalization. One marked change from the past is that participation in politics includes more direct involvement with business and government than it previously did, and doesn’t always include traditional political party participation (Bennet 21). These new personalized politics champion issues of diversity, and are inclusive and tolerant of differences in viewpoints across political networks. Personal action frames, rather than collective action frames, contribute to this more inclusive style of political participation because the parameters for identification within the group are less specific. In a nutshell, people favor individual actions over acting with a group, and the requirements to join groups are more lenient. Finally, social networks like the internet serve to grow movements and unite people to discuss their own concerns and experiences.

Rather than organizing life around membership to organizations like churches, political parties and the like, people tend to demonstrate their personal politics through their lifestyle (Bennet 22). Some businesses participate in zero-waste-to-landfill, but individual zero wasters aim to create a lifestyle that uses resources carefully. To try and live zero waste, there exists no set of rules, no membership fees, and no requirements except actively striving to waste fewer of the resources you have. Personalized politics like those in zero waste aren’t new; they’ve existed at some level in various populist groups, during the globalization of the economy in the 1970s, and recently in movements like Occupy Wallstreet (Bennet 24).

It is suggested that personalized politics have grown due to fewer choices in formal politics; that’s to say, the two party system in the US. The collective actions of many individuals involved in personal politics are unlike typical social movements because they don’t usually have defined leadership, groups, and strict identities. For example, there are various prominent voices in the zero waste community, but in the US there isn’t a chosen leader for the movement. Instead, personalized politics center on loosely coordinated activities and personally choosing to identify with common beliefs. That brings us back to how these movements can be more inclusive, as they don’t usually have such rigid requirements for belonging to a group or participating.

These activist networks seem to be reinventing repertoires of participation.
— Bennet, 27

voices heard

The move to this kind of political participation includes a variety of ways to participate that are influenced by consumer culture, which is the desire for choice and buying our values. For example, there is direct activity like boycotts of products in reaction to irresponsible labor and environmental practices. Unconventional politics have had success in various instances, such as campaigns by activists “to discipline global corporations that they see slipping the net of national regulations” (Bennet 26). In other words, by punishing corporations for harmful or unethical practices. If this sounds familiar, that’s holding corporations responsible for their negative impact on the earth.

Again, these boycotts echo previous efforts except that they are less centrally organized. They still aim at pressuring companies all over the globe to have more ethical and environmentally friendly practices. These new actions are thought to be rooted in personal and local reasons and are only loosely directed by larger organizations (Bennet 27). Due to this change, traditional activist groups with defined hierarchies and identities have changed focus to managing collective action despite ideological and resource differences of participants, and appear to be complex and nuanced networks (Bennet 27). In other words, despite some differences in viewpoint, groups are trying to find common ground with individuals to bring them together for common issues. Individuals are at the center of their own networks but these networks are large due to media and communication platforms, so less formal organization and sharing occurs (Bennet 28).

 A recent example of success is in 2012 when a series of antipiracy bills came up to vote in the US that were considered a threat to privacy; despite backing from traditional media groups, Google and Wikipedia mobilized regular people to contact their representatives to express their disapproval of the legislation, and within 24 hours the legislation was withdrawn. It’s getting more common, too, and the idea of collective action of individuals has the charming appeal of what Bennet describes as DIY ethos; do-it-yourself is a popular way to make almost everything more zero waste, and I feel the appeal is twofold in our own lives and politically (Bennet 29).

Brands can be “held hostage” by consumer mobilization, ie., rallying regular people who care. Protest strategies, especially when paired with hard-to-swallow information like worker abuse or suffering, can force brands to be accountable for their practices or face less profit as consumers stop using and buying their products. Importantly, “mobilizations do not even require mass awareness or radical conversions to succeed”, meaning participation is not only for committed activists (Bennet 31).  It also doesn’t hurt that activism of the layperson, rather than members of closed groups with exclusive ideology, usually gets more sympathetic press coverage (Bennet 31). In short, average people caring and showing up for what they care about has the power to pressure companies to change.

company policy

When it comes to addressing issues of climate change and environmental issues, companies deal with internal and external actors that influence their decisions. When change happens from within a company without pressure outside of the company, we can say the change happened due to internal actors, or forces within the company. External actors are not employees, management or owners of the company; they are traditional regulators like those from governments, but also private and civic actors, ie. non-governmental organizations and regular citizens. That’s activist, aid, and advocacy groups like the Red Cross or Greenpeace, and the layperson. External factors can substantially contribute to how corporations change and develop their own sustainability and environmentally friendly goals. These pressures, especially those from NGOs and consumers, are especially strong when presented together (Gouldson and Sullivan 414).

Consumer activism has put corporations on alert that their brands are in danger  
— Beckett, 31

The good news is that even weak external pressures on companies have an important influence over corporate policy when coupled with other external pressures. It is thought that various external pressures for the same and similar changes reinforce each other and become stronger. An important takeaway is that these pressures need to be sustained, otherwise they won’t become long-term and permanent policy of a company and may even become a business (profit) issue rather than an integrated part of company strategy for the future. Still, external pressures may compete with each other and keeping in mind that most companies choose what will be most business effective, other important issues must compete with each other. Companies will likely choose what is most likely to encourage or maintain growth and profit (Gouldson and Sullivan 422).

push for regulation

All this in mind, actual change in government policy and regulation appear to happen slowly with this kind of political participation. Lack of leadership can be harmful to the efforts of a movement because the public is not comfortable making change or sacrifices without encouragement and solidarity with their leaders (Bennet 36). That being said, personalized politics have generally had success in current and recent politics, and I see no evidence they will be going away soon (Bennet 38).

In the past, governmental pressure to effect change in corporations was the first choice for making change happen. Present day, rather than depending solely on government regulation/enforcement of policies, social actors are playing a large role in what Gouldson and Sullivan call civic governance, meaning citizens calling for and creating change. A blend of pressures internally and externally (a type of co-regulation) of public, private and civic players serves to regulate corporations (Gouldson and Sullivan 414). This change from primarily government regulation to social regulation (consumer and group demands), however, mean that it’s harder to tell why exactly companies are changing because there are more variables of influence than before. Furthermore, these actors can be “fluid and uncoordinated networks (Gouldson and Sullivan 415)”, which makes them hard to identify. 

Internal players, external players, and country specific practices influence how firms act. The case-studies from Gouldson and Sullivan reveal that the actions companies take depend on business factors; if there is not a clear financial case to be made for change, it will not usually occur (Gouldson and Sullivan 421). This is hardly surprising; for companies that exist to make money as their ultimate goal, the greatest incentive is profit. There is no implicit incentive to pursue greener policies, especially if there is no positive financial return, ie. if they don’t make any money. Ultimately for companies to change, there needs to be a loss of profit, the promise of making less money in the future, or financial gains for greener practices. These pressures could come from penalties for failure to conform to laws, meaning creating or enforcing laws that reduce emissions and waste. and making companies that don’t follow the laws pay penalties. These pressures could come from regular people protesting, damaging company reputation, and refusing to continuing consuming products or services from a company with bad practice. Well-organized internal management systems can begin positive climate change related company policy, but without external factors, these changes can be short lived. The weaker the external factors and the less organized the internal factors, the lower the goals fighting climate change tend to be within firms (Gouldson and Sullivan 422).

 Looking at the retailers from the Gouldson and Sullivan article, the companies had “improved their energy efficiency and emission intensity and, to a lesser extent, reduced their greenhouse gas emissions” and had done so without state regulation (Gouldson and Sullivan 423). In other words, private and civic pressure can influence companies to combat climate change, and considering the rest of the information, especially so when it is profitable to the company. That being said, companies aren’t on any track to change their model and stop trying to achieve constant growth, meaning government action will probably be needed to regulate in order for climate change fighting measures that don’t increase profit to be adopted (Gouldson and Sullivan 423).

In short, government, private, and citizen pressure impact how corporations deal with issues of climate change and emissions. Knowing that political change is slow when motivated only by personal politics, we can pursue zero waste with the idea of creating a community and organizing around core issues like responsible resource use and less dependence on fossil fuels. Our choices to vote and support non-governmental organizations (private regulators) are also impactful. That means as zero wasters, we must vote, support non-government organizations who advocate for climate issues, and continue talking about and living zero waste.

 So, there you have it folks. What we do in our everyday lives, our personal politics, is part of regulation. As Gouldson and Sullivan suggest, as long as there is not a profit motivation for companies to change, it’s very unlikely that they will. Our own choices to live zero waste, talk about zero waste, donate to groups that promote regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and equally importantly, vote, all contribute to external pressure that will make change happen.

The next time someone tells you that your efforts don’t matter, remember a thing or two you read here: remember that companies are unlikely to change without threat to their profits. Remember that personalized politics are not new or lazy ways of making change. Remember that information and advocacy can create the pressure necessary for change. Remember that we don’t have to have all the same exact beliefs to work together for a cause. Remember that if the system is to change, change must be demanded at all levels.

Works cited

Bennett, W.Lance. “The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 644, Nov. 2012, pp. 20–39.

Sullivan, Rory, and Andy Gouldson. “The Governance of Corporate Responses to Climate Change: An International Comparison.” Business Strategy & the Environment (John Wiley & Sons, Inc), vol. 26, no. 4, May 2017, pp. 413–425.