Triple Bottom Line: Ethical capitalism is an oxymoron

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Since this is my final installment for this spring, it’s only fitting to discuss something that I’ve been thinking about all semester — capitalism. In my last column, I made the argument that capitalism determines how we define sustainability, and what level of environmental degradation we deem tolerable. Consequently, I’d argue that capitalism is not only not conducive to sustainability, but further perpetuates inequalities that lead to increased environmental degradation.

The capitalist system encourages marketplace competition while maximizing efficiency of production and allocation of resources. However, it can also lead to economic instability, monopolies and short-term fixes to maximize profits. Which brings me to the question that I’ve been thinking about all semester — capitalism is undeniably effective, but can it be at all environmentally ethical?

The basic premise is simple. The higher the rate of consumption, the more demand for products. This creates thriving businesses but also increased exploitation of natural resources and laborers around the world. Therefore, our culture of consumerism is inherently linked to the capitalist system. 

Under a capitalist system, production typically ignores negative externalities that occur, including pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Competing in an open market is all about cutting costs to keep up with competitors, without accounting for the future of finite resources. Short-term profits win out over long-term sustainability, and in the case of nonrenewable resources, a region is left bearing the brunt of the impact long after the profitable goods have been extracted.

The benefits of global economic growth are never evenly distributed. While industry growth doesn’t immediately indicate environmental destruction, there is a strong correlation between a nation’s wealth and its environmental performance. Developing countries often don’t have the means to invest in renewable forms of energy, sustainable production processes and waste management, which leads to them becoming both the world’s greatest producers and polluters. Without international investment, countries that lack initial resources only contribute to digging ourselves in a deeper, climate change-induced grave.

Environmental accountability is placed upon the consumer under a capitalist system. Options for a less impacting lifestyle are buried deep under greenwashed labels, misinformation about manufacturing and empty promises. But when you can barely afford the rising costs of living as it is, being green isn’t at the top of your priority list. 

Pursuing a greener lifestyle is in itself a privilege of the wealthy. Those with wealth have access to education that teaches them to think critically about the global environmental system and the downfalls of capitalism. In that same vein, having the disposable income to make more environmentally friendly purchases, invest in renewable energy and visit national parks to cultivate personal appreciation for the environment are all privileges bestowed upon the upper class. 

More sustainable products undoubtedly cost more than their counterparts; less competition and more ethically-sourced materials result in an exclusive, expensive product. The system benefits those who have the money to make these choices, and it’s much easier for the wealthy to maintain a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle. 

People often resort to cheap fixes like fast fashion, less gas-efficient vehicles or unsustainably-sourced food because they simply don’t have the disposable income to invest in the short term to save in the long term. For many, there isn’t a choice at all — unsustainable businesses are able to exploit those in the most dire states of poverty, keeping themselves afloat because their customers have no cheap alternative. 

A well-read consumer might argue that I’m wrong — there are over 3,500 companies worldwide that have achieved B Corporation status, meeting social and environmental standards while balancing profit and purpose. The certification implies that there is a cornerstone of compromise between capitalism and social innovation. 

However, B Corp standards are not legally enforceable, and certification is virtually nothing more than a self-assessment. Even brands that have developed a reputation for activism have been found to be shallow proponents of advocacy. 

Ben and Jerry’s, certified B Corp, is known for its support of the progressive agenda. Upon its founding, the company only sold shares to Vermont citizens, investing capital straight back into the community where it was founded. In 2000, it was bought by Unilever, a multinational corporation known for unsustainable palm oil production and poor treatment of employees. Ben and Jerry’s’ message of social responsibility is directly at odds with the actions of its parent company, thus proving that within the capitalist system, doing good for the community always comes second to doing well as a company. 

While even an environmentally ethical economy will have its defectors, improvement begins with investment in human capital — living conditions, education and marketable skills. Instead of promoting concepts like ethical consumption, we must make strides towards real equity. Assigning monetary values to ongoing acts of environmental and human exploitation is no quick fix, but will be the basis of a changing attitude toward accounting for negative externalities.

Capitalism is the antithesis of ethical behavior, as it fails to take into account the needs of humans and natural ecosystems. When the going gets tough, the priorities of the triple bottom line — people, planet and profit — go straight out the window. Turning a profit comes first, despite the many other problems perpetuated. Unchecked capitalism creates a positive feedback loop, oppressing the vulnerable, bolstering the wealthy and accepting the widespread environmental damage that comes along with unhampered economic growth. 

While it may seem that the free market and governmental regulations are juxtaposed, establishing greater company accountability and social responsibility is necessary. Intervention by non-market forces is key in revamping our current system for the long haul. Based on our current climate trajectory, there will be no need to drive profit if there are no consumers to supply. Systemic change in our economic system is achievable and possibly the only chance we have at combating human-induced environmental degradation.

If there’s any message I can leave you with, it’s that thinking critically about our existing systems is never a bad thing. Capitalism is more than just an economic philosophy, it’s a foundation upon which our country and many others were founded. As insurmountable as it may seem, we must address and dismantle the assumptions about the functionality of our economy. 

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” usually ran every other Thursday.