Environmental Justice

The Butterfly Effect of Environmental Externalities

We’re all becoming increasingly aware that our choices as consumers have unintended consequences on the world around us.

We’re aware that factory farming isn’t sustainable, our vehicles produce Greenhouse gases, and our garbage has to go somewhere.

We’re ‘voting with our dollar’ by consciously choosing to drive less, buy from ethical brands, and recycle more. We’re influencing demand with our choices.

“The Man”

Meanwhile, ‘The Man’ is using their grotesquely massive influence to lobby against profit-throttling regulations and buy up your favorite ethical brands, terms such as “cruelty-free” can be used willy nilly, and plastic is more popular than Kim Kardashian.

So how is it that you as a consumer can possibly affect a system that seems a bit out of reach?

Much in the way that the Butterfly Effect theorizes that a butterfly’s wings in Asia can impact weather patterns elsewhere, there is an economic theory that suggests that the actions you take as consumers can create a chain of effects on the corporate machine.

The Theory of Externalities

Enter, the theory of externalities.

So, in case you slept through Econ101 like *cough* some of us at The Active Consumer did, we’ll be using the pages within Environmental Impact to explore the butterfly effect of externalities that can come with consumption, using Fast Food as the common theme.

We’ll also suggest ways a collective group of consumers can fight back.

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Womans hands with microplastics on the beach

The Externalities of Fast Food

Fast Food in the United States has grown from a $6-billion-a-year industry in 1970 into a juggernaut with a reported $239 billion in annual revenues in 2020.

The industry’s economic clout has not only enabled it to radically shift our countries consumption patterns (as well as those around the globe), it has also fundamentally altered the very way our food is produced.

Enormous purchasing power and demand for vast amounts of inexpensive goods are among the principal driving forces behind factory farming and massive government subsidies for staple crops like corn and soy.

Fast Food’s dominance

As a result of the industry’s excessive economic influence, gigantic conglomerates make huge profits selling fast food at artificially reduced prices.
Would a quarter pounder with cheese be the same price if a restaurant had to subsidize rising healthcare costs stemming from fatty food and heart disease?

Would a restaurant use plastic to-go bags if they were forced to pay for clean up if they were later found in a river?

Questioning our choices at hand

You could say it is absolutely the consumers choice to eat a fatty burger with a sugary drink, but is it? These lax farming rules and government subsidies are the only things keeping the prices attractive.

If tobacco producers were able to advertise a new ‘ultra relaxing, healthy’ cigarette, and the tobacco was subsidized to make it affordable, would consumers who had no idea smoking was bad for you turn down a nice buzz?

The results of an unpaid external cost — those are the externalities (unintended consequences in non-economics speak).

They are things like animal abuse (possible external cost avoided: natural, grass-fed diet), deforestation (regenerative farming costs), and waste (recycling programs).

Exploring Externalities

The follow pages highlight the unintended consequences of Fast Food on our Agricultural, Natural Resources, and Waste systems.

We challenge you to get creative and explore the external costs and resulting externalities that may come from the things you buy in your day-to-day lives.

Whether that’s the price difference between a carton of generic ice cream and a scoop from your local creamery, or the reason plastic bags are (typically) free.

*btw, there are also a handful of positive externalities that come with fast food, we’ll have a blog post about that here soon







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