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Consumers need a dose of honesty about the fight against climate change

Jobs will go, prices will rise and the choice of goods will recede. Why sugar-coat it?

Supermarket chains are among the most anthropological of companies. It is their business to find out what makes customers tick. They are experts at drilling down into the bedrock of people’s everyday lives to establish their needs and wants. They also tend to have a good handle on our hopes and fears.

Supermarkets know how much of people’s average weekly shop is splurged on crisps and chocolate. They know how much red wine we secretly drink to crawl through the week. They know the deodorants, tampons and painkillers that people favour, at least collectively. They know what we like for breakfast. They are engaged in the most intimate of commercial relationships with us.

So when supermarket chains put themselves at the forefront of corporate trumpeting of climate change goals – the warnings about the immediate peril that scientists say the planet faces – they are landing slap bang in people’s daily lives. The message is rolling right out on to kitchen tables, at the heart of the home.

Policy makers don't need expensive attitudinal studies or ethnographic research to know people are worried about the planet going up in flames, yet are still wrestling with the quandary of how to adjust their way of life to stop it. They need only to walk into a Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores or SuperValu, where "sustainable" has replaced "low-fat" in the marketing stakes.


Lidl Ireland, which operates more than 210 supermarkets – including 171 in the Republic – announced on Tuesday that it intended to be “carbon neutral” by 2025. Aldi claims to have been that way since 2019, while SuperValu says it will do it by 2050. Tesco says by 2035 it will have net-zero emissions, a better-defined aim that is more focused on cutting emissions than buying offsets for neutrality.

There is no doubt that supermarkets have cottoned on to how important the climate issue is now in people’s minds. Lidl and Aldi, in particular, are relentless organisational machines that are capable of eking out environmental efficiencies and new procedures to inch towards their goals.

Catholic indulgences

The executives in all of the supermarket companies are, no doubt, genuine in trying to effect some change.

But anybody with half a brain or an ounce of self-honesty knows that driving to a supermarket to load up on discretionary consumer goods, some of which are flown halfway around the world in packaging that could withstand a bomb or, worse, a six-year-old child, could never be a “carbon-neutral” activity.

Supermarkets are not claiming that it is, or will be. They claim only that their companies’ core operations will cut carbon. But such is the power of marketing, if you slap a tag of “carbon neutral” over the door of Lidl or Aldi, it will allow some people to subconsciously kid themselves that each time they do their shopping, they are engaged in an activity that has no impact on the planet.

Happy days. Now, where is the Asian pomelo I eat for breakfast in my house on the cold fringe of Europe. These are the kind of mind tricks we play on ourselves, and supermarkets are adept at handing us the wand.

What does “carbon neutral” really mean, anyway? In practice, it means a company cuts its carbon emissions as much as it dares without affecting the quality of its products or raising prices, and then it buys off the rest with carbon credits earned somewhere else in the world.

The practice of buying offsets has often been compared over the years to the old Catholic practice of buying indulgences to excuse sin. That might be overly cynical. But there is definitely a slight whiff of doublethink about the concept.

It is an exemplar of the attitude that prevails across commercial-environmental communications, which aims to convince people that they can change their behaviour enough to prevent damage to the planet without actually doing anything that would disturb their own comfort.

It is wrapped up in the culture of feel-good activism. Supermarkets hate to disappoint people.

This all hints at the contradictions inherent in how we go about our everyday lives with which many people have begun recently to grapple against the background of climate change. I am one. It forces you to throw ideology and tribalism out the window, and at least try to look beyond the fog of culture war to focus on empirical facts. This can be confusing and challenging.

But if the planet is being irreparably harmed, that must be stopped. The effort to do so may not taste of sugar, no matter how sweetly anyone tries to sell it.

Pandemic lessons

There are lessons to be learned here from the pandemic. Governments upended our daily lives in staggeringly forceful fashion. Some of us railed against the most obvious excesses of the approach, its contradictions and mistakes and the occasional administrative overkill. At times policy makers walked the line between leadership and near-authoritarianism.

But by and large, society has staggered and harrumphed its way to this point in reasonably cohesive shape. It could all have been done much better. It could also have been done far worse. Society held itself together because most governments learned early on that they had to look people in the eye and reveal to them unpalatable facts to get them onside. All of the data was thrown on the table.

We knew people would die and that our lives would be made uncomfortable.

Similarly, when it comes to climate change, there is no point in telling people that all of the machinations of industry and commerce and consumption can be turned upside down to put the brakes on carbon emissions, and yet somehow this can all be achieved without causing upset to everyday lives.

It isn’t just people who work in the commercial world who are sugar-coating what may need to be done. If you listen too much to a certain strain of environmental activist, you would swear that the economic change they covet will bring us to a land of wild meadows and babbling brooks, where people will be richer in body and soul than ever they were before. I do not believe this for a second.

There are economic obstacles ahead that must be scaled. They are surmountable but it will not be pain free. Some people will lose jobs as industrial production is reinvented. The prices of many products will rise. Government, sadly, is going to be sticking its nose into our business on an all-too-frequent basis.

This is not meant as a zeitgesity paean to perpetual austerity. Environmentalists must be realistic about the pace and scale of change that can be forced on people from above, instead of harvested from below. And it does not mean that all consumption is the devil or that a foreign holiday is suddenly a mortal sin.

But the nature of consumerism will have to change. That seems, to me, to be an inescapable fact. The alternative may be that we barbecue the earth and everything on it. Empirical science suggests this is a risk. There is no point dousing this in marketing jargon to make us feel good. It is best to just get on with it.