Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Conscious Consumerism

From paper cups to campus wide electricity waste, NYU Abu Dhabi has a tricky relationship with the environment.

In recent years, sustainability initiatives at NYU Abu Dhabi have been directed towards maximizing the net benefits of individual actions on the environment. Ecoherence, the self proclaimed Mean Green Fighting Machine of NYUAD, has paved this road. However, their aggressive approach to advocating for conscious consumerism has raised widespread criticism for being ignorant of majority student opinion. Looking at Ideascale or NYUAD Forum, we see a growing rift between Ecoherence and the student body, which does no good in changing the mentality of people and pushing them towards sustainability.
The creation of this narrative is harmful and undermines environmental efforts. Although sustainability helps mitigate climate change, sustainability and climate change are two different concepts. It is thus important for the student body to come together and push for evidence-based policy for those targeting to tackle climate change. What we need is for both sides to set aside their biases and use evidence and careful reasoning to promote environmentalism.
As an environmentalist, I admire my fellow friends in Ecoherence. Their presence is imperative in advocating for sustainability on campus and exposing students to environmental issues. However, their current approach of adopting aggressive policies — specifically, banning paper cups — may be doing more harm than good. One criticism that follows is that it seems fair that institutional inefficiencies in sustainability need attention before requiring students to change their daily habits. If we want to make a big chance, NYU Abu Dhabi has to shift its focus from recycling and sustainability to making larger emission reduction pledges.
To seek inspiration, we need to look no further than the NYU pledges on emissions reductions. NYU is a signatory to American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which commits NYU to achieving climate neutrality by 2040. NYU is taking this leadership with the NYU Climate Action Plan which outlines how NYU will reach those pledges.
Delta Airlines and Duke University recently made a combined purchase of 5,000 carbon credits to simultaneously offset carbon from all Duke University business travel on Delta in 2017 while supporting urban forestry in the Raleigh-Durham area through funding the planting and care of 1,000 new trees. NYU Abu Dhabi can do the same with it’s partner airlines such as Etihad. It is imperative that a college as progressive as NYU Abu Dhabi takes further action in mitigating climate change. Particularly when emissions on campus are so high, steps bigger than recycling need to be taken.
Students also believe that small actions such as these have negligible effect. “Identifying and working on the source of our largest direct carbon footprint should be the foremost idea; indirect issues such as banning paper cups should be second page when we have such obvious problems in our direct consumption of electricity and water and emissions from flights,” said Alberto Castillo, Class of 2019.
On the other hand, bringing change on an institutional scale is often beyond the scope of what a small group of people can accomplish.
“Every statistic we see on the environmental health of our planet taking a nosedive is made up billions of individuals choosing to place value on something else. Changing our daily habits can change the status quo,” argues Jhamal Fanning, Class of 2018 and member of Ecoherence.
Ultimately, we must consider whether or not changing our daily habits has a sufficient impact. While changing daily habits does affect sustainability, it has a long way to go before solving wider environmental issues such as climate change. Furthermore, even the assumptions of environmentalists on advantages of conscious consumerism on sustainability are farfetched. A 2012 Study that compared the carbon footprints of eco-friendly consumers to those of regular consumers found no meaningful differences. Further, Alden Wicker, in Conscious Consumerism is a Lie, notes:
“Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers — to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester — will not change the world. Making series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models just makes us feel better about ourselves.”
Analyzing the ban of paper cups with evidence and careful reasoning mirrors this sentiment. Research suggests that an uncoated paper cup requires roughly 0.5 MJ of energy to manufacture, whereas a ceramic cup takes 14.1 MJ. However, dishwasher by a mere 0.35 efficiency uses nearly 230 kJ to wash a ceramic cup, which is half the energy required to manufacture new paper cups. If one argues that strain on landfill due to paper cups is unaccounted for, recycling paper cups is energy intensive too. At the end, using a ceramic cup might be just marginally better for the environment. So is it worth banning paper cups?
The importance of environmental sustainability and eventually mitigating climate change is uncontested, but individual actions without institutional leadership can only take us so far. Our current status quo is that NYUAD has shown limited institutional leadership in taking actions regarding emissions reductions and significant shifts toward sustainability. Rather than compromising convenience via small-scale initiatives such as banning paper-cups or it is more important that we put collective effort in pushing NYUAD to make larger climate change and sustainability commitments.
Rastraraj Bhandari is Climate Columnist. Email him at
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