Its not about sustainable plastic- but the system embedded around the product

Every day tonnes of plastic are being used, produced and exposed. We all know that this system is called a linear system, with catastrophs for people and the environment. Now, there are ciruclar principles that aim at reducing plastic waste, by focusing on the recycability of the material, or the substitution of it by as much as possible.

Some initiatives are popping up much more in stores and I can see more brands advertising that their products are made with recycled ocean plastics or other recycled materials. On a first look that sounds great, because it means that we are avoiding the use of fossil fuels to create new bottles or other plastic based materials. It also means that industries working with waste problems and because of that support environmental actions.

On the second look, it does not sound sustainable. Taking ocean waste in the long term, will leave industries in a so called “lock-in”. It means their infrastructure may be build up to center around the need for specific waste products. For that to happen specific types waste must always occur in a specific quantity. This does not only leave the industry locked-in but also potentially increases the desire for waste generation. It also makes consumers believe that their product purchase is “green”, whilst it is not. Much recycled plastics products, such as rubber soles, or far worse, textiles made from recycled plastics, run off, and turn microplastics back into the environment.

Not all new sustainable systems, are sustainable by design. A transition must take place that is just, and well thought after for its long-term negative effects and possible opportunities.

Now, we could demolish plastics, but again not all plastics is bad. Some plastic materials can last very long and some of its material features might not compete with other material. What I like about it, is its ability to sustain. However, recycling requires a lot of energy and again, potentially nothing can be recycled forever and each product has its own footprint.

Much more that needs to be looked at is the system. Why are plastic based products produced? What industry do they encompoass? Who is the main target group of that plastic based content and why do they benefit from that product? What makes proudcers sell this product and what sustainable value is delivered with it?

Systems are complex ! They are interdependent and connected. One input leads to another output and one change, effects another change. Curious to learn more? Message me!

What good does it make, if Coca Cola and other industries recycle their plastics, when the fact that people are increasingly addicted to sugar, promotes such an industry to begin with? Why needing to order take-home food, wrapped in plastic, when the real problem is people working too much and potentially having too little time to cook? Why needing a range of plastic-based clothes for the many different occasions, when a smaller selection had done so well in the past? Why needing to substitute plastic straws, with other materials, when straws were long no nessecity? Why needing the many plastic- based cooking devices to cut vegetable in all sorts of imaginatory forms, when a knife had done so well for so long.

Many products are promoted and consumed based on desire. But, desire often does not last. What lasts is something that has deeply rooted meaning – products that support a function, products that satisfy a long-term need.

Sustainability and the self

Recently, sustainability has been associated a lot to a green economy, an economy that is CO2 neutral up to CO2 negative. A CO2 neutral economy can happen, if carbon is captured during the production, usetime and end of life of a product. Most efficient are therefore products that are made from biological materials only, like a bamboo straw. A bamboo straw can be cut of the original bamboo plant, dried, treated, sold and used. The CO2 print hereby varies between CO2 negative up to positive, depending on the treatment, shipments and other processes involved.

The real CO2 print becomes more difficult for products that are processed heavily and consist of multiple product components like a shoe or jacket or many other basic products like hair dye and toys for kids. Many of these products consist of synthetic materials or materials that do not biodigrade at the end of their life. To make these products more ecological or more specific CO2 – sustainable, different type of processes might be used or product materials might be replaced with others i.e. plastic toys with wood toys.

So much stuff to rent. Why actually?

Regardless of the business model, consumption often continues to be promoted. Such an example is a “sustainable” business model in which consumers are encouraged to buy an ecological product such as a bamboo straw, but do not know whether the bamboo is harvested in respect to its necessarily growth time. Another example is a buisness model that makes you want to rent or lease products, although you never needed them before to begin with (i.e. expensive clothes or toys).

Why should the self be more recognized in the current sustainability agenda?

The self-concept is a general term used to refer to how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself.

Baumeister (1999) provides the following self-concept definition:

“The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is”.

Carl Rogers (1959) believes that the self-concept has three different components:

• The view you have of yourself (self-image)

• How much value you place on yourself (self-esteem or self-worth)

• What you wish you were really like (ideal-self)

The impact of consumption on the self

Regardless, why or what we consume, it often relates to us – of course it does, since we consume it. However, media, advertisment etc. often distracts us from our true self and therefore encourage a desire to take on an identity by consuming something that does not reflect our true self. Our attention shifts towards a “fictive ideal-self”. An example is wanting to look like a celebrity , someone on advertisment, etc and therefore buying new clothes, dying hair or buying a product to align more with the desired persons’ trait. However, we are not that person, we are ourselves. We will never be that person and likewise, that person will never be us.

Desire for the fictive ideal supports a society less satisfied

Often, we are influenced by media, by friends, culture and societys’ expectations how we should be, what we should do, how we should look like and how we should behave. Many impulses that distract us from who we really are and want to be. Impulses that often lead to greater levels of dissatsifaction as we struggle to think about whether what we have and how we are is enough, or if we don’t need more or changes to be fullfilled.

After the point of consumption , and once realized that the image we created with the idea of the fictive ideal of us, stopped satisfying, the cycle of consumption, re-enters. In addition, other mental health problems might arise, because an image created does not align with the image of one-self. Think about advertisement that rewards or promotes white-caucasion skin types or even hollywood that (can) promote cultural stereotypes. What happens is that a society is created that does not thrive, but a society with wish-full thinking that imagines to thrive with a product that supports an idenittiy or part of it not true to themselves. That can happen, when buying or renting or changing something, that does not actually make happy.

An example is advertisement that illustrates a white rich man with a huge house and a loving wife. The image might create the perception that because of his white skin, a demanding job and a huge house his wife loves him. Because of that, one with darker skin might want to have whiter skin, wants to buy a house etc. In doing so the connection to the real-self gets lost and in doing so also the opportunity to identify success and happinnes for themselves (small job, free time, happinness to attract happinnes)

How can the true self be promoted more in the current sustainability agenda?

Feet are made for walking, jackets made for protection, blankets used to protect from cold, hair care products made to nurture them, body cream to make our skin less dry, to protect it. Food is made to keep us healthy, to connect us to others. Other products are made for comfort, help us sleep, help to support us. Many products weren’t made to sell a look or an image, but because of a fundamental function they support(ed).

A sustainability society or a sustainable industrial agenda, therefore needs to emphasize more to promote functionality over an image sold and a society that allowes for the production of healthy products, that are kept and not consumed to be trashed. This is possible if the self is satisfied with what it consumes. Therefore, products should provide a supporting function, align with the consumers true feelings and desires and likewise be accessible to a wide range of customers i.e. through product/market targeted business models (i.e. rental of healthy product to students, elderlies etc.). Doing so will allow society to thrive, be more happy, be more inclusive and to create an ideal image of the self, while also saving much of that CO2 .

Who cares whether you have bold or gray hair? Imagine time spent worrying , money spend on hair dressors vs. time spend on something fun and money spend to support that fun activity 😀

Resources/ Inspirations

Delmas, M. A., & Burbano, V. C. (2011). The drivers of greenwashing. California management review54(1), 64-87.

Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of personality and Social Psychology73(1), 31.

Frosh, S. (1991). Identity crisis: Modernity, psychoanalysis and the self. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Levänen, J., Uusitalo, V., Härri, A., Kareinen, E., & Linnanen, L. (2021). Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles. Environmental Research Letters16(5), 054069.

Muller, J. (1985). Lacan’s mirror stage. Psychoanalytic Inquiry5(2), 233-252.

Velenturf, A. P., & Purnell, P. (2021). Principles for a sustainable circular economy. Sustainable Production and Consumption27, 1437-1457.