Seems like you can’t walk 5 steps in a shopping mall these days without encountering what my colleague calls “green porn”.
You know, those highly graphic, in-your-face images of monstera deliciosa or polar bears, accompanied by some company’s announcement that they have now stopped giving out free straws or have increased their air con temperature by 1 degree.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess what these marketing campaigns are meant to do. They’re blatantly trying to woo “millennials” by making the company seem like it cares about sustainability and the environment. Probably because some expensive marketing consultant told them it’s their only chance of getting those flighty young adults to look up from their phones and pay attention.
Now, most millennials I know find this whole trend annoying and just a little bit… gross. Me, I hate that mega-corporations who have been wreaking havoc on the environment for decades think they suddenly get a free pass, just because they now use more eco-friendly product packaging.
But, as disgusting as these “ownself praise ownself”-type ads are, I do think that the greenwashing trend is exactly what Singapore needs. Here’s why.
Reason 1: Big companies have disproportionate power
There is absolutely no lack of ground-up initiatives with a focus on sustainability, but these are nothing compared to what big, powerful companies can do.
Here’s an example: There’s an ongoing movement, organised by nonprofit BYO Singapore and youth volunteers, to get bakeries to reduce their use of individual plastic bags for buns (#BreadWithoutBags).
But if you look at who’s participating in the campaign, you’ll notice that most of the bakeries are small businesses. Not to disparage them, but how much plastic can these small bakeries realistically save? And how much impact can they make?
Now imagine if BreadTalk and Four Leaves joined in the #breadwithoutbags movement. These big chains have the lion’s share of the bun market, so almost everyone in Singapore would be forced to reduce or at least consider their plastic bag consumption.
Yet, being so powerful, they have little incentive to do so… Unless the whole “millennials like saving the earth” thing gets so big that even these giants start taking it seriously.
Also, remember the whole #StopSucking movement last year? People have been trying to reduce single-use straws from the ground up for the longest time, but it was only after Starbucks officially boycotted them, that every other F&B company started to follow suit.
That’s another superpower that giant corporations have — not only do they impact their own consumption, they also have the power to influence other companies to follow suit.
Reason 2: Significant impact comes only with scale
Purely by virtue of their scale, big companies and organisations can make a way larger impact with their environmental decisions than any single person’s lifestyle decisions.
No matter how much you personally advocate the use of menstrual cups and bring your own bag to the supermarket without fail, you are just one person. Your impact is limited to your personal consumption and whatever influence you can exert on your social circle.
So, I totally welcome big institutions’ attempts to be cool and millennial-friendly. As gimmicky as they may seem, the smallest action by them can multiply into a huge effect.
Take the National Day Parade fun pack for example. This year, NDP committee to develop a more eco-friendly fun pack in consultation with Zero Waste Singapore.
The improvements may seem so minor and gimmicky as to be borderline laughable, but once you consider the multiplier effect of 175,000 fun packs, they turn out to be not so small.
For example, omitting the tiny plastic stand for the Singapore flag means 175,000 pieces of plastic saved. That’s so much more than any single person can do. And the best thing is that this significant saving comes at almost no cost to anyone. All it took was someone to make the decision.
If the gross wannabe-green trend could result in this sort of positive impact, then I’m all for it.
Reason 3: It increases overall awareness of issues
A lot of the formulaic greenwashing we see out there is probably aimed at millennials, to give them that warm and fuzzy feeling that makes them spend on things like bamboo straws.
But a great side effect is that these big brands’ marketing campaigns can also spread awareness among the “unwoke”.
Just recently, DBS released Season 2 of Sparks, their attempt to make a web series about banking (???). Each episode features a social enterprise trying to get funding from banks, and getting rebuffed by those sharks in suits for being financially unsound.
Sparks clearly falls under the category of annoying, millennial-wooing “green porn”. But I have to give the producers credit for explicitly exploring the tension between economic profit vs environmental benefit.
The privileged Singaporeans who have gone through academic training might know about this aspect of the capitalist economy, but I think there are many others who do not.
So kudos to DBS for making the perils of late-stage capitalism accessible to a wider audience — probably unintentionally.
Reason 4: It can influence your relationship with money
Let’s say you think the environmental agenda is total crap and you refuse to change your behaviour. There’s nothing that would stop you from asking for extra plastic bags at the supermarket and double-bagging every tuna bun as though it were radioactive waste.
Fair enough — you can ignore the ads and social media. But can you ignore what Ho Ching is doing with the nation’s funds?
That’s right, Temasek Holdings is the latest mega-organisation in Singapore to jump on the bandwagon. At their latest annual review, we learnt that they’re now pursuing the “sustainability” theme for their new and future investments.
It’s early days yet and they have only a few investments to show for it — mainly not-yet-listed clean energy and agri-tech companies — but I’d consider this sufficient motivation for any retail investor to start considering the sustainability profile of his or her own investments.
Because, what if sustainability isn’t just a goody-two-shoes CSR thing, but is actually an important aspect to consider alongside traditional financial metrics?
If Ho Ching’s investment company is thinking about sustainability, then you probably should too. They might be on to something.
What do you think of the sustainability trend? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.