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Living Sustainably

Can We Save the Planet Without Having to Do Without?

Many in Germany are trying to do their part to slow climate change. They are conscientious about the purchases they make, they ride bikes and they try to reduce their trash and carbon footprint. They can't solve the problem on their own, but they could force politicians and businesses to act.

Marina Rosa Weigl / DER SPIEGEL
By , Anton Rainer, and
Thursday, 7/18/2019   12:53 PM

Saving the planet isn't going to be easy. It'll take effort. Like packing children's lunches into recycled glass jars and wrapping them in wool socks to prevent them from shattering in kids' backpacks. Or making homemade detergent out of curd soap, soda and water. Whatever it takes to avoid plastic packaging. The Meuser family has been living this way for half a year.

"We're only taking small steps, but that alone feels so liberating," says Maik Meuser, 42. "But we also have to invest time and energy," says Nicole Kallwies-Meuser, 41.

Both work full-time. He's a TV host and she's a project manager. They have three children. Their day-to-day family commitments are challenging enough as it is, but at the beginning of the year, the parents asked themselves: How can we leave behind a world for our children that is worth living in and beautiful? Because if something doesn't change soon, the Meusers thought, it's over. And not only for them, but all of humanity.

Surveys show that nearly three-quarters of all Germans are worried about their planet's future. It's no wonder then, that the secretary general of the United Nations hardly misses an opportunity to call climate change the "greatest systematic threat to humanity."

What's new is this: There is an increasing amount of people like the Meusers who are not only worried but are seriously looking for ways to change the way they live. These are people who have decided that saving the environment isn't merely the purview of the hippy-dippy-granola crowd, but for everyone.

A 'Quasi-Religious' Promise of Salvation

The Meusers live in a duplex in the western German town of Dormagen. They don't identify as particularly political. If anything, they're middle-of-the-road kind of people. "We're not radical about what we're doing, just pragmatic," says Nicole Kallwies-Meuser. "Simply step-by-step." They avoid plastic shopping bags, plastic-wrapped sausage and orange juice sold in Tetrapak packaging. When they go to the butcher's counter at the supermarket, they usually bring their own Tupperware to avoid having the meat wrapped in plastic -- even though the woman behind the counter still looks at them funny. Their toothbrushes are made of bamboo.

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In the past, the Meusers used to place three yellow trash bags full of plastic garbage on the street in front of their house every week. Now they're down to only one and it's only half full. Their garbage can that once overflowed is now mostly empty. The day care the Meusers' children attend has followed their lead and replaced the disposable plastic water bottles with reusable bottles and tap water. "Five years ago, our friends would have laughed at us," says Maik Meuser. "But now, almost everyone asks how they too can get involved."

The Meusers are no longer outliers. This summer, one of the hottest buzzwords in Germany is "sustainability." It has overtaken economic growth as the main topic on more than half of people's minds, according to a recent survey. Lots of current statistics reflect this shift in thinking: For instance, 42 percent of people want to use less electricity this year. And one in three would like to do without a car more often.

Atmosfair and Myclimate, two organizations that provide consumers with carbon offsets, reported record sales in 2018 with growth rates of 40 percent or more. Anyone who flies and wants to assuage their guilty conscience can donate money to offset their CO2 emissions. At the same time, sales of bicycles and e-bikes jumped by nearly 10 percent in the past year.

Last year, an average of five German farmers a day switched to pure organic farming, and revenues for organic farmers rose by 12 percent compared to the year before. This year, the food industry will sell almost twice as much vegetarian or vegan food as it did three years ago. In 2012, around 20 cookbooks with vegan recipes were published in Germany, while in 2016, that number had jumped to more than 200.

According to surveys, half of Germans find that the Green Party's values are in line with their own. In other words, the desire to protect the environment can no longer be ascribed to a particular political ideology -- and certainly not to a particular milieu. Some people want to live more sustainably because it's progressive. Others want to do so to protect nature.

"Sustainability is becoming a 'quasi-religious' promise of salvation," says communication scientist Norbert Bolz. It's a rallying cry for all the people who are tired of hearing about the other big movement of our day: populism, with its calls for exclusion and secession and its "After us, the flood" mentality. And not to mention Donald Trump.

'The Public Is Currently Way Ahead'

A lot seems to be coalescing at the moment and it's not coming down from above -- from thought leaders or politicians -- but from the middle of society. "The public is currently way ahead of politicians and the economy on this. It's also having an influence on both," says the sociologist and climate expert Harald Welzer.

A new dynamic has emerged, primarily because the climate issue is largely perceived as a question of justice -- intergenerational justice. Millions of young people have understood that their future is at stake and that one day they'll pay the price if something doesn't change soon.

"'Fridays for Future' has developed more political power than Greenpeace on its best day," Welzer says. "The process of cultural change that has begun is palpable."

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On the other hand, this will to change isn't reflected in figures everywhere. Meat consumption in Germany, for one, hasn't declined at all, even though many people now express a wish to live vegan. And despite the fact that sustainable tourism is en vogue at the moment, just as many Germans fly to their vacation destinations as ever before.

How does this all fit together?

The Germans, it seems, were long a people of "climate-concerned climate sinners," the German Federal Environment Agency states. They buy organic sausages, put them in their reusable jute bags and drive home in their SUVs.

No One Wants to Change

Consumption continues to grow unabated. And even while the percentage of consumption that is organic-vegan-green is growing, this trend can at best soften the general destruction that is taking place -- not solve it.

That's why this new sustainability movement is as self-deceptive as it is pointless, critics say. In the end, no one really wants to radically change.

But it's also true that leaving it up to consumers alone to change the world will only overwhelm people. The Meusers are experiencing exactly this. Changing their habits to reduce their plastic waste has been difficult enough. Following a completely sustainable lifestyle -- travel, food, housing, clothes, energy -- is out of the question as long as they have to do it completely on their own. "We'd like to do more, but it would just take too big an effort," says Maik Meuser.

The will to do good and live sustainably is there. This is true for many people. But in order to prevent their wish to improve the world from ending in frustration requires more than a few changes in consumption habits. It requires more than a few sacrifices here and there. The economy on the whole needs to become greener. The government needs to begin rewarding sustainable economic behavior and making environmentally harmful behavior more expensive. But is that likely to happen? Will the economy really go green -- or will it just pretend?

The Environment Evangelist

For several months, Michael Jost has been traveling the country like a missionary, speaking to investors, managers and journalists. He shows a disturbing video simulation of the Earth in the year 2100 if the global temperature were to rise by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). It depicts heat waves that envelop the globe like wildfires. Water shortages. Droughts. Floods. "We need a global strategy to reduce CO2," Jost says. "We must develop into an emissions-neutral society."

Jost doesn't work for Greenpeace or Environmental Action Germany. He's a chief strategist at Volkswagen, the company whose products have been polluting the air for decades. The company which deceived millions of customers worldwide with manipulated diesel engines. The company which a few years ago warned against a "campaign against individual mobility" every time environmental regulations were made more stringent.

The company is currently planning an electric offensive like the industry has never seen: Volkswagen plans to sell 22 million electric cars over the next 10 years. This seems overly ambitious, considering that in 2018, Volkswagen only sold 50,000 electric vehicles worldwide.

The market for electric vehicles is still tiny, the growth forecast vague and the risk enormous: Volkswagen is investing billions in a future technology without knowing for certain whether or not it will even be adopted.

The company's e-offensive isn't exactly voluntary. In China, the world's largest automobile market, the government is pushing for change. Volkswagen expects that by 2040, practically no more cars with combustion engines will be sold in the country. Anyone hoping to do business there in the future, therefore, will have to build electric cars.

The European Union is also exerting pressure and tightening CO2 targets. Internal calculations by VW and BMW show that if they don't increase their fleets' shares of e-vehicles to 40 and 55 percent, respectively, in the next few years, they could face billions of euros in fines.

Time to Force Consumers to Do What's Right

The car companies are actually coping better with the pressure from China than with the new specifications from Europe. Beijing has a master plan for systematically expanding e-mobility. Europe doesn't even have a general plan.

According to VW CEO Herbert Diess, this is exactly where the biggest problem lies: Politicians in Europe are leaving businesses to figure out for themselves how to develop sustainable products on a large scale. For Diess and other leaders in the German automobile industry, one thing is certain: Without government support measures, the vaunted e-mobilization of the masses will be unattainable. A strategy is needed to lure people to electric cars, to create a used car market for e-vehicles, to create a network of charging stations and to make at-home charging stations ubiquitous.

E-cars are still too expensive for consumers outside the high-priced niche. Without subsidies, corporate strategists fear that cheap electric cars -- meaning models suitable for mass production -- would still be a ruinous business in the long run. As long as this is the status quo, e-mobility will remain a luxury for high earners and an unsuitable building block for a turnaround on sustainability.

Companies are struggling with similar issues in other industries as well. They want to -- and have to -- offer more environmentally friendly products. But so far, most of them remain niche offerings. As great as consumer pressure is on the one hand, on the other, it's hard to change consumers' behavior. Everything is supposed to become more sustainable and more ecological -- but please, don't let it become at all uncomfortable or unaffordable.

The coffee chain Starbucks declared nearly a decade ago that it wanted to replace all of its disposable paper cardboard cups with reusable ones. Then in 2015, its goal was to have at least a quarter of all Starbucks cups used in the United States be reusable. In 2018, only 1.8 percent were.

This begs the question: If consumers won't voluntarily forgo cardboard cups, why not slap them with a mandatory surcharge?

How About Some Tax Advantages?

The financial sector has long been interested in promoting "sustainable and impact investments," meaning investments in companies and mutual funds that demonstrably pursue eco-friendly and social goals. Studies have shown that companies that integrate sustainability goals into their business plans perform better in the long term.

Within two years, such investments have increased by 25 percent. Yet they still remain a business for specialists. Sustainable investments could become a product for the masses, if only governments would support them with the proper framework conditions, Axel Weber, the head of the Swiss bank UBS, wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times. How about incentivizing such investments with tax advantages?

In no other industry, however, does sustainability appear to be as big a deal as in the textile industry. One reason is because there are few industries that are dirtier. Textile manufacturers emitted more than 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2015 -- more than all international flights and global shipping combined. What's more: 63 percent of all materials used in clothing production are plastic.

According to a recent study by the management consulting firm McKinsey, nearly 80 percent of buyers of fashion chains are now operating under the assumption that sustainability will have a major influence on consumer purchasing decisions in the coming years, especially in mass fashion. McKinsey predicts that sustainability will be at "the center of innovation in the fashion industry."

Luxury brands like Stella McCartney have already cut polyvinyl chloride (PVC) out of their supply chains and are experimenting with other materials. Mass producers, however, are having a tougher time: European apparel retailer C&A, for one, is trying out compostable T-shirts. In 2017, H&M introduced Arket, a new brand of clothing that was supposed to last longer and be more environmentally friendly. Arket's market share, unfortunately, is still negligible.

Brand-New Used Shoes

Adidas has also developed a sustainable product that has had some success on the mass market. In 2015, the German sports apparel maker launched a running shoe made entirely of recycled plastic waste that had been collected on beaches and in the sea. In 2018, 5 million pairs of the shoes were produced. This year, that number is set to jump to 11 million.

By 2024, Adidas intends to only use recycled polyester. That's not only because customers want it that way -- so do many employees, whose average age is 31. Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted recently estimated that half of his company's workforce voted for the Greens in elections in May for the European Parliament.

James Carnes wasn't one of them. As an American, he's not allowed to vote in Germany -- even though he's lived in Herzogenaurach for years and has worked for Adidas for nearly two decades. Today, he's the company's head of global strategy and is responsible for new products. His latest new development is a shoe with the somewhat pretentious name, "Futurecraft.Loop." It's a 100 percent recyclable running shoe that can be returned to Adidas, dismantled into individual pieces and reassembled into a new shoe. Raw materials can thus be reused within a closed cycle. "It'll probably take about two years until we can make a mass product out of it," Carnes estimates.

Adidas recently announced its intention to achieve a closed-loop economy with all of its products in the medium-term and eliminate plastic waste altogether. It sounds like a radical goal, but it could be the only solution. What's the point of making things that are only a little bit more sustainable if lots more clothing is getting purchased?

According to a study by Greenpeace, Germans today buy an average of 60 new pieces of clothing a year -- and wear them half as long as they once did. The result of this is that production has more than doubled since 2000. This excessive consumer behavior is diligently promoted by parts of the fashion industry, with up to 24 new collections a year.

What Are Politicians so Afraid Of?

The priorities of the German government can be summed up in a single sentence. "First, we'll take care of the economy, then the climate." With this statement, Peter Altmaier began his new job as Germany's economics minister in the spring of last year.

Even occasional advances have been undermined. When German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a social democrat, was getting ready to enforce a stricter CO2 limit for cars, she was reined in by her party's leader, Andrea Nahles. Labor unions don't like electromobility because it could cost jobs -- they'd rather keep depending on diesel. When a government commission decided in late January to stop using coal to generate electricity in Germany, conservative politicians attacked the plan, saying it would lead to the deindustrialization of Germany.

And Christian Lindner, head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, told a group of demonstrating students, led by young climate activists like Luisa Neubauer, that they'd be well-advised to leave climate protection to "the professionals."

Many people see it the other way around, however: Professional German politicians don't appear to have their act together. "Germans feel like nothing is happening with climate protection. They're asking themselves, 'How did that happen? We used to be forerunners, what with our decision to phase out nuclear energy,'" says Ortwin Renn. He's the scientific director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, a nonpartisan research institution. His team of researchers tries to track Germans' ecological sensitivities.

"Politicians have been ignoring what's been going on in the country for an astonishingly long time," Renn says. In particular, the generational gap and the growing influence of Fridays for Future remained largely off the radar of many political strategists. Renn can identify when this shift occurred down to the day. It was the evening of May 26, right as the results of the European elections became known. The Greens received almost 21 percent of votes. And it wasn't only Social Democrats who switched to the environmentally minded party -- more than 1 million conservative Christian Democrats did too.

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