Why Eco-Shaming Will Never Create Impactful Change

  • 7 months ago
  • 6 Minutes to Read

Eco-shaming, eco-guilt, green-shame, we’re guessing that you’ve heard of at least one of these phrases recently and you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what it means.

It’s something that is commonly linked with eco-anxiety (we wrote a blog on this here), but more recently seems to be coming into its own… Oatly we’re looking at you. Urban Dictionary defines eco-shame as ‘to shame another person for not respecting the environment’ and in a nutshell that’s what it is. An attempt to make someone feel shame or guilt related to their behaviour, or lack of behaviour, in how that will then impact on nature and the environment.

Like with nearly everything in the world of sustainability, this subject is not something that is black and white and it’s something we struggle with on a daily basis. More so, as it seems to be seeping into the marketing world as yet another ploy designed to coerce consumer behaviour by making them feel guilty for current actions. This is something which just doesn’t sit right with us. We’re all about impactful change, but that should come from considered education, insight and learnings rather than toying with people’s emotions.

You may have caught the recent Oatly campaign, ‘Help-dad’, now we love Oatly and what they stand for, their creative campaigns and the transparency they’ve shown in the past, but this campaign is perhaps a step too far. The campaign which shows teens scolding their middle-aged dads for wanting to drink dairy milk rather than an alternative has been called everything from nasty to ageist. We get that the ads were supposed to drive cross-generational conversations around the benefits of alternative milk in fighting the climate crisis, but we think guilt-tripping dads for finding it hard to change up a habit that they had for years is probably not the best way to go about it.

Not to mention guilt or shame only stand to promote feelings of negativity rather than positive long-term reinforcement, without this, lasting impact is unlikely. And we know that building habits is a process and not something that is going to happen overnight purely through naming and shaming. Author and expert on habits James Clear, states that there are four stages of building a habit, Cue, Craving, Response and Reward. The cue, which acts as the trigger for the behaviour, the craving is the motivation, desire or want to act. The response is the actual action you take and the reward is the final goal of the habit. Nothing screams negativity and shame there…

Accessibility also needs to be accounted for and it highlights the fact that the sustainability industry is still one where barriers to entry need to be broken down. Messaging needs to change across the board in order to reach certain societal groups that may be marginalised, and looking at factors such as income and how that can pose an impact on whether it is even possible for some to adjust their lifestyle in a more sustainable way. When there are real, physical barriers that prevent some from living more ethically it is these issues that must be addressed first and foremost in order to impact change. There’s no room for guilt or shame here. 

As much as eco-shaming calls into account the consumer, we should really be focusing on where and how big change happens. Policy level changes create the kind of impact that the climate breakdown is so desperate for. So, rather than business playing off their own customers, business and consumers need to stand together united, demanding more from governments and holding them accountable.

We know there is a fairly long road ahead of us in creating the long-term change to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, but eco-shaming really has no place in this journey. We see it as purely another questionable marketing tactic that plays with people’s emotions and fundamentally ignores other societal issues around sustainability that we should be facing up to. It’s these issues that we should be addressing in order to create the lasting change that will ultimately help to save the planet.


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