For months, many young people across the globe have been protesting against their respective governments' climate policies. In Germany, the pro-environment Greens party is riding a wave of unprecedented popularity, and has announced bold new policies in addition to its climate crisis agenda. By prohibiting online firms like Amazon from destroying returned items, for instance, it is targeting our throw-away culture. DW spoke to Wolfgang Ullrich, comsumerism expert and author of the book Alles nur Konsum (All just Consumption), about whether overconsumption is the next frontier in the fight to save the planet.
DW: As young people take to the streets in Fridays for Future protests, do you think such environment movements are here to stay?
Wolfgang Ullrich: A good part of the population is in fact more environmentally aware these days. There was a focus on air travel. Now we are looking at package recycling and at plastic bags. It's intersting to see that the debate centers on consumerism, on everyday habits that we recognize are changeable.
Are consumers right to believe they can ease their conscience by buying organic foods or Fair Trade products?
You really have to be careful. Of course people feel they being particularly eco-conscious when they decide to do without a plastic bag, or eat less meat. Often that leads to a rebound effect, however: consumers who have a quiet conscience feel that they can ocasionally cross the line. Anyone who buys fair trade chocolate has good arguments because they make sure no one is being exploited and they support the infrastructure in an economically weak country. On the other hand, they are supporting absurd transport distances.
How can the brands and companies that feed consumerism help?
I'm critical of manufacturers who suggest everythign is fine if you buy a product. I'd like to see more honesty in that respect, companies should be more radical and put less of a stress on easing people's conscience, and more on giving them a guilty conscience.
Eco-friendly decisions often mean people will have to do without something. But will people want to take the train to the nearby coast, or simply fly to their exotic holiday destination?
That depends on whether relinquishing something can actually take on a rewarding quality. Strong brands that have quasi-cult status could cause great change. Just imagine people couldn't simply buy the next iPhone before proving that they haven't boarded a plane for two years, or volunteered 20 hours of work for the environment in their community. The status symbol wouls be so much more valuable. Companies must come up with ideas, and more clearly demonstrate social responsibility.
Is society willing to do with out?
All religions have forms of renunciation that people accept. So the question is, who in our society today has the status religions have had for a long time? Today, brands are a kind of substitute for religion, so maybe they have the power to push forms of renunciation in society or to make them attractive.
Consumer decisions are voluntary. Do we need regulations or bans?
Legal regulations can be helpful, but again you have to be careful because people with enough money would continue as before, while households with less money who already do without many things would face further restrictions.
At the "Fridays for Future" demonstrations, you get the impression that there are more important issues than status and ownership. Are these young people a beacon of hope?
Yes they are. If they found companies in a few years, they can decide what is important to them and how they want to work. Their goals can have an impact in ways we don't have a clue about today.