The perfect path to sustainability does not exist. We need to take what we can get from every strategy we have, and that sometimes means working with the corporations and structures that got us here in the first place.
I often see people in environmental spaces getting stalled by their collective mission for moral purity and their desire to completely reshape society. While it’s admirable to have long-term goals and a vision of perfection to strive toward, these can lead to overlooking solutions that best suit the present moment.
Getting as many people and corporations as possible on board with environmentalism means making compromises. There will be workers on the inside who will necessarily have to be flexible with their employer’s corporate interests while pushing for change and innovation. There will be citizens who don’t believe in climate change, or who just don’t really care; they will make more ethical decisions if they’re convenient and don’t bring any significant changes to their lifestyle.
Let’s take smartphones as an example. The Fairphone is a sustainable smartphone. According to its website, Fairphones are made with Fairtrade gold and recycled materials, can be easily repaired and have a five-year warranty. The company pays factory workers livable wages, is electronic waste neutral and has specs right up with what people are used to from popular sellers. It also offers sustainable phone accessories and tools to make repairs.
Our first problem: You’ve probably never heard of them. They’re still trying to figure out how to expand their operations beyond Europe.
Our second problem: As nice as they sound, most people won’t want to buy them, even if they could. Why give up the smartphone you already have? Switching phone models before it’s absolutely necessary only generates more waste, anyway.
Meanwhile, according to Statista, Android controls 71.8% of the mobile OS market, while Apple controls 27.6%. Globally, there are billions of Android and Apple smartphone users. They also each have an ecosystem. You can get your Android’s texts on your PC or Airdrop photos from your iPhone to your MacBook. There are whole webs of product capabilities that encourage brand loyalty and more consumption.
Imagine how powerful it would be if Apple and the multitudes of popular Android devices started shifting to the practices used by Fairphone, which uses the Android system but is much less popular than, say, the Samsung Galaxy. Each has an established customer base who would be able to start making more sustainable purchases without changing their behavior — and for some people, without even realizing anything is different.
Of course, the Fairphone is a good idea. Ideally, something so consciously created would be able to take over from dominant industries, but those industries remain on top for many reasons. Fairphone isn’t even the only such smartphone available. There is a sustainability niche in every market, and that is largely productive. People who care, and have access to these niches, can start making more environmentally conscious purchases. A growing sustainable market can also show that there is profit in making ethical products.
The vast majority of people around the globe, though, are missing something necessary that would lead to participating in these niche markets. Be it money, knowledge, location, desire or something else entirely, most people will continue to buy the iPhone. They will continue to order items through Amazon, buy Lego toys for their children, go for shopping sprees at Target and get their morning coffee at Starbucks.
In September 2022, Apple announced on its website that it was releasing the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Pro and the iPhone 14 Pro Max. That’s just one year after releasing the iPhone 13 series. According to Macworld, we can expect the iPhone 15 series to come out this September as well.
A clear long-term goal here is eliminating this kind of rapid consumer culture. Rather than releasing a new model every year and incentivizing people to move on and buy the next big thing, we can incentivize using items for longer. While working towards that, however, it is worthwhile to address the oxymoron of making consumerism as sustainable as possible.
The message here is twofold. For environmentalists: Sustainable innovation is a crucial part of a livable future, but sometimes it has to be done imperfectly by the people and products who make up the system that got us in this mess. For those who don’t know or care much about the environment: The broad mission to save us from climate catastrophe won’t necessarily entail drastic changes to your life or require you to make great personal sacrifices like you may see some people do or hear some people demand.
The questions raised are many. Which corporations are willing to change? How can we make that happen? What’s an effective mix of internal work and external pressure?
We will encounter roadblocks in every strategy, but any push toward sustainability is a push in the right direction.