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Let’s face it: no adult wants to be mean to kids. It is bad press. It makes them look like real-life Ebenezer Scrooges. Especially adults who run multinational corporations that rely on public opinion and customer approval for their livelihoods. Or large governments that want to appease their electorates before their next campaign. 

So when youths demand for environmentally conscious practices, it is only natural that these institutions would accordingly race to incorporate articles, panels, and conferences that showcase their “achievements” in the sustainability field. Events like these offer them an easy way of symbolising their “ethical” sides.

And what makes for a better story than national leaders and big corporations taking time to assure the climate kids that, “yes, we are concerned for your future, too”?

A Pat on the Back from “Big Brother” 

As a student trying to enact change in the environmental realm via writing, I have received patronizing reactions from adults who, with a friendly smile and an assurance that they will do something right “in the future,” effortlessly dismiss what I have to say. When I pitched original articles and op-eds about ongoing climate negotiations from COP24  to national media, many editors sent them back saying their papers were more interested in hearing about how I, as a young person, “was representing Vietnam” at an international event. Who cares about climate negotiation technicalities, right? 

After hearing from other student activists around the world as part of my #GlobalStrikes series, I’ve realized that my experience is not at all unique. South Africa’s thirteen-year-old national organizer, Lily Shaw, said that one major lesson she’s learnt throughout her eight months striking is that her government “loves” the climate kids. “

[The African National Congress] and other parties in power love taking pictures of me and asking me questions.” Shaw said. It is good for their campaigns. She politely responds to her questioners, but she is frustrated at their hypocrisy. “They’re not doing enough... I think a big part of it has to do with greed. –  Parties are focused on making money, and a lot of people are comfortable with that.”

The Thai activist Ralyn Satidtanasarn, meanwhile, recalled writing to the Prime Minister’s office and receiving a response that assumed the girl was writing as part of a homework assignment. 

In different ways, climate activists from all walks of life have had to cope with patronization. Sometimes, it may be hard to distinguish between genuine attention to your message and exploitation of your personhood to attract public sympathy. Most of the time though, the differences can be keenly felt, to those participating as well as watching the interaction. 

Who has the last laugh? 

 In April this year, for instance, The Big Issue, ironically the UK’s leading street newspaper, ran an article headlined “Our young climate activists asked M&S how clothing can care for the planet.” 

The problem was, well, the young activists didn’t quite have space to ask, confined to truncated, one-line questions that seemed like they existed as probes for the adults to make their point. After acknowledging that yes, fast fashion is “simply unsustainable,” the article gave heavy airspace to “the experts”—Mark & Spencer product development heads, as they elaborated on how the brand is on their way towards “100 percent” sustainability. 

Nowhere in the article did the climate activists have a chance to elaborate on their activism. The closest one of them was able to go was saying “When we went to the march, me and Ella made banners. Mine said, ‘The World Can’t Fix Itself, Only We Can’.” Youth interest in sustainability was outright presented as a “trend,” to be caught onto by fashion brands in designing their new fast-fashion product lines.  

Ultimately, the big corporation had the last word;“We have done a lot of good things and we’re telling our customers a lot more,” said Head of Sustainability Carmel McQuaid. 

To this, we are all supposed to collectively cheer on a fast-fashion brand that so far has tried to implement a clothes-swapping program, recycle hangers, produce synthetic leather footwear and put a washing temperature label on its products. Wup-dee-doo.

As a result of their initiatives throughout the years, M&S has been awarded a “European Business Award for the Environment” from the European Commission (2012), among others. 

Meanwhile, M&S is still using viscose, exposing factory workers across Asia to potentially lethal amounts of carbon disulphide—according to a string of exposing articles published over the past three years.

Look Around the Panel Before Speaking 

The 2019 Voices Conference—Business of Fashion’s exclusive cross-industry gathering for the leaders of the “fashion and luxury business” as well as “big thinkers” of other fields—is featuring climate activist Kelsey Juliana, who filed a lawsuit against the federal government for environmental damage

BoF advertises itself as the leading authority on the global fashion industry, which M&S and countless unsustainable brands are a part of.  

More examples abound. At the UN climate talks this year, a Financial Times international conference on “FT Global Food Systems” was advertised, which will feature both student climate activist Izzy Warren and Sainsbury’s Director of Brand. The conference, slated for this November, is sponsored by Bayer and Syngenta, among other big-agriculture brands. 

Sainsbury, one of the UK’s largest department stores, has been criticized by environmental activists for its negative impact via excess production and packaging. In fact, it has been taken to court by Trading Standards over the later charge, in a landmark 2010 case

Bayer, one of the world’s most formidable pharmaceutical giants, has attracted so much criticism for its unethical and unsustainable practices, it has a network of activists dedicated to highlighting its malpractices (Coalition Against Bayer Dangers). The corporation regularly imports coal for its energy uses. Syngenta, meanwhile, is well-known for being the inventor and primary manufacturer of atrazine, a known hormone disruptor linked to reproductive harm and cancer. 

Public appearances of corporate leads and prominent environmentalists are by no means a new phenomenon. In 2017, New-York-based sustainability influencer Renee Elizabeth Peters, with close to 18,000 Instagram followers, was quoted in the Huffington Post saying that she turnt down “probably 10-20 approaches from brands every week.” The real shift here is adults are specifically targeting the climate kids. 

More recently, seventeen-year-old Jamie Margolin, founder of the global youth activism organization This Zero Hour, boasted of declining proposals from multiple, large corporations, including those in the fast fashion industry.

This is a reality that us young environmental activists need to be aware of, so that our independent voices are not co-opted or dismissed by those who claim they know best. 

But where to draw the line? 

There is, of course, value in open dialogue across different strata of society regarding an impending threat that may doom us all. Many student activists, while speaking on panels with big corporations, genuinely wish to make a difference. And as a young person myself, I understand how hard it is to get your voice heard, how tempting the offer of a public platform can be. 

But make no mistake: the authenticity and independence of your voice matters. By attending these much-publicized meetings, us students can be inadvertently helping companies advertise their scarce sustainable projects — some laudable, no doubt, but most paling in comparison to the damage that they have been and are continuing to inflict upon the environment. The divide between intent and impact here is bigger than the divide between baby boomers and millennials.

It is always inspirational to see other students standing up to patronizing offers from those in power. Margolin has written extensively to This Zero Hour and student strikers in the U.S. about not letting promises of money and fame distract them from their cause. “There are systems of oppression out there that need to be fought, a #climatecrisis to solve, and we cannot afford to get distracted!” the seventeen=year-old wrote on her instagram.

Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, as well as multiple Climate Strike national leads, are committed to preventing their movements from being co-opted, recently accepting the honorary label of the oil industry’s “biggest threat.” 

It may be a long and arduous journey, the inchoate stages of starting a movement in your area to change systems with deep roots. But it’s better to not take the easy way out. 

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About Mai Hoang

Mai is Climate Tracker's High School Engagement Coordinator and an environmental writer from Vietnam—the youngest-ever Climate Tracker fellow at COP. She's currently attending high school herself in the U.S.