Gazing ahead, Taylor Swift is an aesthetic dream: Poised, slightly smiling, and draped in beige tweed. She’s posing for British Vogue’s January 2020 cover, where the media is abuzz about her latest love of sustainability—wearing vintage Chanel, opting for ethically-made jewelry, and partnering up with eco-designer Stella McCartney.
She’s earned many titles during her 16 year career, from 11-time Grammy award winner to LGBT icon. Her latest moniker as sustainability influencer is a new one, championed mostly by Vogue. Jen Nurick of Vogue Australia calls her “one of the world’s biggest sustainable fashion influencers,” emphasizing that her sustainable fashion choices are a reminder to minimize our environmental impact.
But now, two years later, a new report claims that compared to other celebrities that pollute, she’s one of the worst offenders. Reported by Yard, a UK-based digital marketing agency, it alleges that her private jet is responsible for over 8,200 tons of carbon emissions this year alone.
That, according to Yard, is “1,184.8 times more than the average person’s total annual emissions.” And it’s only July.
Celebrities, Mass Media, and Greenwashing
Responding to these allegations, a representative for Swift claims that she’s not present for all of these flights, loaning out her plane on occasion. That explains why 170 flights have been tracked this year alone, but doesn’t undo its environmental impact.
She’s hardly the only one espousing sustainability¹ while living a luxury (and carbon-intensive) lifestyle, however. Kim Kardashian, who also made it on Yard’s report of top polluters, recently revamped her skincare brand SKKN to be more environmentally conscious. In 2020, musician Pharrell Williams founded the skincare brand Humanrace, offering refills as a waste-saving measure.
Aside from celebrities, there’s a noticeable shift in mass media too: Beauty magazines that once gushed about Chanel and MAC are now compiling lists about the hottest sustainable brands. Many eagerly provide affiliate links for prospective consumers, urging them to “go green.”
Why the sudden interest? A 2019 study headed by the NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business reveals one tantalizing reason: Sustainable products sell better.
As explained on Harvard Business Review:
Products that had a sustainability claim on-pack accounted for 16.6% of the market in 2018, up from 14.3% in 2013, and delivered nearly $114 billion in sales, up 29% from 2013. Most important, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90% of the CPG categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts.
That’s a significant amount. It’s also important to note the fine print here—that products marketed as sustainable sold better. There’s no guarantee that these products are better for the environment.
Research examining these “green claims” have found that many brands aren’t being truthful. In a 2021 report, the Changing Markets Foundation found that “59% flouted green-claims guidelines” set by the UK Competition and Markets Authority. In 2019, the Norwegian Consumer Authority outed H&M for labeling some clothes as sustainable without substantiating these claims.
Then there’s the fact that both celebrities and the mass media are misleading the public about sustainability. They overwhelmingly support purchasing pre-loved clothes and buying products using sustainable materials. Experts argue the real problem is consumerism.
“The push for greener consumption has devolved responsibility from governments and business to ordinary people,” write Oliver Taherzadeh and Benedict Probst, PhD researchers at the University of Cambridge. “Indeed, the very act of green consumption still fuels the extraction and use of natural resources, pollution and environmental degradation. Stuff requires more stuff to produce—this is often overlooked when we buy re-useable cups, eco-appliances and “sustainable” clothing.”
The most sustainable option, many experts argue, is to stop buying stuff, a message brands aren’t eager to spread. How can celebrities and brands make money (a source of their wealth) in a society that shuns consumerism?
That’s the issue: They can’t. There’s a big incentive to skew its true meaning.
Shifting the Blame on Consumers
Making more money is a tantalizing incentive to embrace sustainability—whether that means branding yourself as a sustainable influencer or creating a sustainable beauty brand. But it’s not the only one. It’s also an attempt to shift blame towards the everyday consumer.
For what, though? Well, apparently climate change itself.
“The global affluent, the richest 10%, the richest 1%, are responsible for most of the pollution that is changing the climate and the biosphere,” says Tom Dietz, PhD, a environmental sociologist and professor at Michigan State University. “They have the responsibility, and also have some of the opportunity, to bring about the change we need.”
One reason why they’re top polluters is due to their luxury lifestyles. In a 2020 paper published in Nature Energy, researchers found that as people became wealthier, they bought more expensive, energy-intensive goods². Much of that includes “transport” goods, such as cars, boats, and planes.
These purchases also emit much more carbon compared to what lower income people rely on. Yard actually estimated what these numbers were for its top celebrity polluters, and it wasn’t good: It ranged from 3033.3 to 8,293.54 tons of carbon.
In contrast, the average American household emits 48 tons per year. Based on this, one household would take over 172 years to rival Taylor Swift’s CO2 emissions just from her private jets. For Kim Kardashian, ranked at #7 on Yard’s list, it would take slightly shorter—about 88 years.
But that’s not all. Aside from luxury purchases, many of them are investing their money elsewhere—in the beauty industry, celebrities have launched beauty brands en masse. Some of them boast “sustainable” practices, such as using natural materials, offering refills, and improving their products’ recyclability.
But regardless of how green these businesses are, no one will admit that they inevitably contribute to CO2 emissions. The labor involved in gathering raw materials and manufacturing—the stuff that occurs before consumers even touch these products—is a big pollutant.
This, combined with celebrities and their luxury lifestyles, paints a dirty picture: Vacationing and flying uninhibited at a moment’s whim, while encouraging consumers to buy their products to make sustainable change.
While both consumers and the wealthy contribute to carbon emissions, most of the focus is placed on low to middle class consumers. And that’s a problem.
“While individuals may have a role to play, appealing to individual virtues for addressing climate change is something akin to victim-blaming because it shifts the burden from those who ought to act to those who are most likely to be affected by climate change,” says Morten Byskov, a Postdoctoral Researcher in International Politics at the University of Warwick. “A far more just and effective approach would be to hold those who are responsible for climate change accountable for their actions.”
Should We Hate Taylor Swift?
Since Yard released its infamous report, memes and vitriol have swarmed social media about Taylor Swift’s hypocrisy. But I urge you: Recognize that the system of capitalism, not Swift, is the real problem here (she’s merely a cog in this machine). Both mass media and the upper class have misled the public about how to combat climate change, shifting it from its anti-consumerist message into an exciting new niche to profit from.
Instead of advocating for green consumerism, the upper class must:
- Stop creating businesses based on “green consumerism.” The best sustainable business decision is to not create a brand, as it uses up natural resources and increases CO2 emissions.
- Give up their private planes and yachts, which have a massive environmental impact. With flights shorter than 30 minutes, many of them could opt to travel by car instead.
- Stop misleading the public about sustainability. Experts say that fighting consumerism is more important—it’s impossible to foster economic growth and fight climate change, as it involves depleting more natural resources and increasing environmental degradation.
Undoubtedly, few, if any, people of the upper class will voluntarily acquiesce to these demands. To keep them in check, the government must demand it by regulating the industries at fault, as Byskov elaborates on The Conversation. Consumers can help sharing information about sustainability and how the upper class (especially celebrities) contributes to it.
Celebrities should have their good reputation threatened—after all, they’re flying in their private jets while people in Pakistan battle 121 °F temps. It needs to stop.
¹ When it comes to sustainability, there isn’t one agreed upon definition. Generally speaking, experts agree with the definition given by the Brundtland Commission on sustainable development, however. They said it must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
While sustainability largely focuses on minimizing environmental impact, experts agree there are three key pillars in sustainability: Social, economic, and environmental. In this blog post, I’m mainly focused on the upper class and their effects on climate change.
² A quick note on this study, for further clarification. It found that the top 10% consumed 20 times more energy than the bottom 10% worldwide. That means most people living in America, even if they’re not in the upper class, are included in the top 10%, simply because America is one of the world’s richest nations.
However, there are stark differences in energy consumption even among the wealthiest. The ultra wealthy consume unfathomably large amounts of energy compared to the average American (Taylor Swift being a good example of this). We all should reduce our consumption in some way, but not all Americans evenly share the burden of this responsibility—the upper class does.