An open letter to Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics, and Ben & Jerry’s – your climate activism/lifestyle marketing/bipolar worldview begs the question: why do you exist?
A quick note from a puzzled customer/bystander. I’m trying to decipher the signals that you’re sending out to the world; there seems to be a sizeable paradox on display.
All three of you made coincidental headlines in support of the global climate strikes, even halting business for a day to show that you mean business. It is awesome to see companies taking their environmental footprints seriously; that is the only way we’re going to make any progress – if entities and people accept they are part of a massive web of emissions and consumption, and each does what it can to reduce.
It gets kind of weird though when you take your great initiatives and jump on board with the broader activist movement. For example, you also (at least Patagonia), linked up with 350.0rg’s Bill McKibben, who had this to say on Patagonia’s website: “Climate isn’t an issue – it’s a lens, a way to understand the economy, politics and foreign affairs. If growth was how we understood the 20th century, survival is how we’ll bottom line the 21st.”
Bill is quite clear where he stands; he is a fighter, an activist and happy jail-bird for the right cause. You three businesses are a bit of a conundrum though – your very existence, and success, is kind of a bombastically huge exclamation mark on how we got into this global emissions mess, isn’t it? In what way do any of you respect Bill’s “survival” metric?
The luxurious three of you – Lush, Patagonia, B&J’s – thrive only in wealthy environments, ones where there is a lot of money to suck out of image-conscious jeans. A notable commonality of your brands is hedonism; you don’t just slyly peddle luxury, you shout it.
The world is groaning under the burden of feeding, heating, and keeping healthy 7+ billion people. As you and Bill both claim, we need to lessen our footprint, to curb emissions, to live smaller. All well and good!
But let’s be honest about what you flog. A container of sweet vanilla, pure marshmallow powder and a hint of lavender – $7.45 per 190g or eight bucks tax incl for a single, decadent “bath bomb”. A cosmetic facial product consisting of rosewater and iris flower extract, glycerin and beeswax, all for only $29.95/100g, or a modest $300/kilogram.
Ben & Jerry, surely one of your most common ingredients is irony, with sprinkles of ineffable sanctimoniousness. One web page over from your description of the culturally imperative “The Tonight Dough” flavour (“Caramel & Chocolate Ice Creams with Chocolate Cookie Swirls & Gobs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough & Peanut Butter Cookie Dough”) all humour evaporates as you note that “Climate change is about Justice… The cruel irony of climate change is that people in the developing world — those who can least afford to adapt — will pay the steepest price for the 200 years of industrialization and pollution from the developed world.”
I guess those who can most afford it are the ones that form your customer base, correct? You know what “the steepest price” is, B&J? How about $10 for a liter of ice cream?
How about $160 puffy jackets for children 6 months of age, with the lecturing manufacturer proudly proclaiming on their wall that “1% is for the planet”. In other words, Patagonia will show its utter and total climatic devotion by sending $1.60 to help fund climate activism, and somehow find a home for the other $158.40 siphoned from the wallets of lifestylers. Probably 10 percent goes to the factory in China that makes these things, I’m guessing? Ben & Jerry, those poor people in the developing world, all 3+ billion of them – how does your extravagantly expensive lifestyle product fit into their fight for survival? Do you think they are impressed to see what you sell, while at the same time you demand that they stop using the fuels that barely keeps them alive? And Lush, what precisely is the profit margin on $300/kilogram of your sludge that is predominantly glycerin, beeswax, and some flower squeezings that pampered-silly pre-teens massage into their little faces?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed your products, including a Patagonia fleece for years, until it was so out of style friends wouldn’t let me wear it. Because you know as well as I do that it’s about style as much as longevity. I enjoy ‘Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz’ ice cream when I can find it, but Canada is cruelly deprived of this flavour. And Lush, trust me, no one enjoys smearing pumpkin and banana and ground-up almonds all over their face as much as I do (though you could have warned about the dangers of doing this outside; a hundred frenzied birds are terrible for the complexion).
And being a businessperson, I have no problem with you making healthy profit margins – that’s how free markets are supposed to work.
But are you not architects, captains, optimizers, and gleeful champions of the over-consumptive lifestyle that is the very root cause of excessive emissions?
In an era where you are demanding immediate action with respect to greenhouse gas emissions/climate change, how do you even begin to justify your existence? The world does not need you. The world would suffer not the slightest if all three of your organizations vanished tomorrow. Your employees need not suffer, surely those deliriously large profit margins would be able to provide very handsome severances? Patagonia, you brag how you’ve sent $89 million to various environmental causes since 1985 in your “1% for the planet” campaign; what happened to the other 99 percent/ $8.9 billion? And would those 6-month-old babies survive in, say, a $30 coat as opposed to the $160 beauty you peddle? Or is it built extra-capable for their arctic explorations?
Here’s the problem, when you cross over from being captains of sustainable business practices to brothers-in-arms with the likes of McKibben. Here’s a quote from him from your very own email/post, Patagonia: “it has been a great pleasure to watch the climate movement, as it has grown, focus its attention ever less on the natural world and ever more on the injustice that is at the core of this strange moment in history.”
It is bad enough when people knowingly make climate change a political issue, because you all know how politics goes right? If you want true progress, who in their right mind would seek to make the issue political? Need I ask you to view the carnage of the US political landscape to ask yourself if making climate change political is a good idea?
On top of that, there seems to be scant wisdom in vigorously attacking fuel industries that keep 7 billion people alive, all the while selling over-priced lifestyle products that are only affordable because of the wealth generated by that cheap energy. Every earthling relies on cheap reliable fossil fuels for energy and life as we know it. Cutting off heat supplies and eliminating the cooking fuel of billions of under-developed people simply isn’t going to happen, and it won’t in the comfortable west either.
Take, for example, Rhode Island in January of this year. Their governor declared a state of emergency when overly-strong natural gas demand during a cold spell depressurized the system and 7,000 customers nearly froze to death. I’m not kidding, the governor pleaded “If you have heat, please, call your loved ones, your church members, anyone in the area, offer for them to stay over at your house. Make sure they have a warm place to stay tonight.” This near catastrophe happened because people like McKibben have successfully blocked new pipeline construction. Do you honestly want a calamity like that on your head?
If, for some logical-yet-inconsistent reason you declare that you would rather stay in business and keep harming the planet with your existence, then we need to work together, the existing energy industry, the burgeoning renewable energy industry, the purveyors of luxury goods, and citizens as a whole. You need to stop attacking and start collaborating, and not with hate-filled shouters like McKibben. We need some grownups at the table.
And, as a start, if you decide that staying in business is preferable to shutting your doors, then please admit that you know better than anyone that lifestyle is not to be trifled with; people do not want to go without your Stuff That No One Needs.
There is no doubt that you are doing all you can to limit your footprint and go carbon neutral. Good for you. But the existential questions you raise when you support climate activists like McKibben is: why are you here at all?
If the stances of companies like these don’t make sense, there’s a reason. Pick up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” available at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com to find out why. It may well be the best decision you will ever make!
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