What Is A Carbon Footprint—And Does It Excuse Large Corporations?
“It’s Time To Go On A Low-Carbon Diet”
So reads an archived page from British Petroleum’s 2006 campaign to help spread the word about the effects of our personal environmental choices. The brand, the same one behind the infamous and devastating Gulf Oil Spill in 2010, wanted to remind its consumers that we’re all in this together. Individuals and corporations, its campaign insinuated, share the burden of mitigating the effects of climate change.
While carbon footprints aren’t new, the focus on personal carbon output is a more recent development. We’ve seen a rise in consumer-focused movements that remind us our small, individual choices matter—such as plastic bag taxes at grocery stores and reusable water bottles. And these changes do make an impact!
But when it comes to harm reduction, do our canvas grocery totes really make a difference compared to large-scale fossil fuel extraction? Or are we convinced by well-tuned marketing agencies that these massive corporations really are trying to join the fight against climate change? In BP’s case, the emphasis on a personal carbon footprint was intentionally designed to create a brand image that matched consumers’ evolving values.
What Is A Carbon Footprint?
But first, what is a carbon footprint? The phrase itself conjures up Jurassic-era dinosaur tracks or long walks on the beach.
Carbon, a chemical element found in everything from diamonds to living organisms, is not inherently bad. But when combined with oxygen, it becomes carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas—and this creation process largely involves burning fossil fuels (gas and coal). Greenhouse gases absorb heat from the sun and retain it closer to the earth’s surface—causing temperatures to rise. This leads to more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and changes in habitats for crucial flora and fauna.
Industrial processes, waste, and agriculture also contribute to emissions, although at a lower rate than the energy sector. All of these gases get bundled loosely together in the phrase “carbon footprint.”
Who Is Responsible?
Countless carbon calculators (including one created by BP itself) tell us how lightly, or rather, not lightly, we’re living on the planet. It’s a powerful visual—to be painted as personally responsible for something as important as the climate crisis, with all the numbers to prove how we can be better. The whole message caters to a westernized storyline of us being the hero of our own stories, without regard for the community around us.
The truth is that we all leave a carbon footprint, no matter how mindfully we walk through our lives—and human activity, or anthropogenic causes, from the past 50 years is causing temperatures to rise. But the discussion so often centers on “human” activity without making a distinction between personal and industrial actions.
The good news is that protecting our environment doesn’t rest squarely on our individual shoulders. Staying focused on the problem at hand becomes complicated when large corporations—ones investing big bucks in carbon footprint advertising campaigns—keep the conversation centered on individual actions.
The largest changes can come from those with the greatest resources—and in a global economy that centers on consumption and production, that influence lies prominently in the industrial space. But it has only recently become part of the conversation that there’s a profitable advantage to adopting language (and hopefully transparent behaviors) around sustainability and carbon footprints.
This means, while the largest actions need to come from the largest entities, the loudest advocacy may have to come from the consumers—us—and our actions, activism, and spending.
What Do We Do Next?
While we can (and should) look at our own carbon footprints with a sharp eye, we must also continue to apply consumer pressure to demand system change. Holding the top polluters accountable for change can look like direct outreach, but it can also mean paying attention to existing legislation around production and distribution practices. When we vote, we can look for candidates who aren’t taking campaign funding from coal, gas, and oil lobbyists. If possible, we can even make sure we’re banking with organizations dedicated to sustainability and making investments that don’t include fossil fuels.
Fast fashion, another heavy contributor to global carbon emissions, also contributes to greenwashing (see H&M’s latest encouragement for consumers to “evolve”—yet another brand telling us the answer is to consume more, not less). Here, we can look to movements like Fashion Revolution, which encourage us to publicly demand brands share who made the clothes we wear, in what kind of conditions, and with what environmental impact.
When consumers vocalize their values (and where they want to spend their money), brands do listen. Even BP has come out with newer, more specific goals to go “net-zero” by 2050, thanks to market demand for clean energy (although, it warrants great criticism and concern over who gets to define and measure “net-zero”—because it’s BP themselves). Through continued advocacy, we can amplify pressure on brands like BP to shorten their timelines, add tangible milestones, and truly make the sacrifices for the environment that they’re also asking of us.
But don’t simply give up and wait for corporations to change their tune—because if we’re still buying it, they’re still making it.
I suggest that we use our own reductions as a compass to point us where we should scale up our own personal energy. If you find yourself opting for public transportation, advocate for all-electric bus fleets and expanded access to metros in your city. Or, if your compost pile is basically a member of the family at this point, contact your local officials and waste management organizations to set up compost drop-off sites around town.
Perhaps your interests lie in green jobs, plant-based eating, upcycling and repairing, gardening, low-consumption minimalism, or going plastic-free; these are all great starting points, too! Your personal decisions can be a conversation starter with friends and family to amplify the movement and the change that needs to happen.
There’s still hope for individual action too—yes, your diligent trips to the recycling centers can make an impact, especially when you help make sustainable options even more accessible to your community.
Ultimately it’s the entities with the most resources, not the individual people with the least, that should be making the biggest (and quickest) sacrifices. When amplified at scale, our actions and demands will eventually find us matching pace, step-by-step, with the footprints of the organizations that can shape our climate future.
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!