I wrote this in response to a March 1, 2017 Quartz.com article entitled “Conscious Consumerism is a Lie. Here’s a Better Way to Save the World”. This article was written by Alden Wicker, co-founder of EcoCult, and a strong advocate for sustainable living. I assume we have very similar goals and both only want what is best for the planet. However, after reading this article, with its eye-catching title, I had to express my slightly alternate view.
In the article, Alden discusses how the adage of “using your dollars to vote for the world you wish to see” is a wasted effort, because our economy’s structure is built to incentivize wasteful consumption and unsustainable business ventures. She goes on to reference a 2012 study, which concluded people who believe they are environmentally aware (i.e. “green”) have no difference in ecological footprints from their unaware (i.e. “brown”) counterparts.
She lists off the usual arguments against sustainable consumer choices (i.e., too expensive, too much time needed to research, too “elitist” in having the option to be so picky). She gives an example of forest-destructing palm oil present in many processed foods, and how she believes buying organic milk won’t change that. Similarly, she argues that regardless of campaigns to reduce plastic bottled water use, their use is still on the rise. She also suggests living sustainably can create social awkwardness.
Her answer for a better way to save the world? Donate your money to environmental charities and your time to policy discussions. That I can agree on. But as I argue below, true conscious consumerism still deserves a seat at the proverbial “earth-saving” table.
Conscious consumerism, done right, is not equivalent to blind, ignorant consumption of “green” products.
I consider myself a proud “conscious consumer”. “Conscious” means “aware of and responding to one’s surroundings”. Awareness and response means you are “woke” enough to read past a label, while looking at the big picture and analyzing the full life cycle of a product.
Like many others in the sustainable lifestyle community, I’m not contributing to the massive “green cleaning” marketplace or patting myself on the back for buying organic milk in a shopping cart full of processed and packaged foods.
Instead, I clean using various combinations of baking soda, vinegar, and concentrated plant-based castile soap. My diet now excludes most animal products and packaged foods. Many of my summer vegetables are grown with my own two hands and supplemented with local farmers market fare and bulk beans and rice. I buy organic produce in the winter, but I don’t blindly buy goods without thought as to where they were grown. By living a mostly zero-waste lifestyle, I inherently purchase less heavily marketed and advertised consumer choices.
I am not alone in this venture, but instead, part of a strong movement towards truly “conscious” sustainable life choices. And, I believe those efforts should be celebrated.
Minimalism is the pillar of conscious consumerism. By definition, minimalism lowers both your personal ecological footprint and your personal financial burden
Minimalism is the primary basis for a sustainable lifestyle. Conscious consumerism comes next. If you can’t reuse (or repair) something you already own, and which adds real value to your life, you can replace it with something made sustainably and made to last. Because a true conscious consumer buys less items, the price doesn’t matter. We don’t need 5 of the same shirts in different colors – we just need one. So, if that organic cotton or hemp shirt costs 5 times more, that is okay.
We can avoid the ecological impact associated with “fast fashion” and other items made with little care for environmental stewardship. That makes a difference. We are only one person, and that difference may be small, but it is still measurable.
The Quartz article references a 2012 study that concluded “green” people don’t have measurably lower ecological footprints than their conventional counterparts. I found this argument unconvincing. The paper does not disclose the bounds used in quantifying relative ecological footprints. For example did it include only direct emissions, or did it actually include the indirect emissions associated with “conscious consumerism”? (Direct emissions typically include: miles driven, airplane miles, + home energy use. Indirect emissions include those associated with the food you eat and the products you buy). Indirect ecological footprints, admittingly, are harder to quantify. So, without a description of the estimation methods used, I assume the authors didn’t include them.
So, essentially, the 2012 study concluded those who have the luxury of thinking through their consumer choices likely live in bigger houses, travel more, and have a car. That is probably true. However, a comparison of two people in similar socio-economic status – one being a conscious consumer, the other not, would have measurably different total ecological footprints (when including indirect emissions in the equation).
Wearing sustainable fashion can spark a conversation that may not have been easy to have
If someone compliments my American-made and vegan coat made from recycled ripstop material, I use it as an opportunity to talk about sustainable fashion. Some people may not even be aware of the issues with “fast fashion”. And others may not realize there are sustainable alternatives. Brands are out there creating change (yes, actual change), and we should support them.
By having these conversations, you aren’t the annoying one at the party outside of basic social constructs. You are bringing something new to the table, you are interesting and unique, and you aren’t confined by societal norms. And isn’t that how change really happens?
Conscious consumers should be more involved in environmental policy, but the opposite is also true
We can’t expect companies to change when demand stays the same. And we can’t demand moral superiority from corporations or policy makers, when we aren’t willing to make the sacrifices ourselves. At a recent local environmental policy meeting I attended, I was the only one with a reusable coffee mug. Every other attendee had paper coffee cups or plastic water bottles in front of them.
The writer of the Quartz article is conscious of her own consumerism. So, she was probably just trying to say conscious consumers need to work on environmental policy. And I agree. But, I argue those hoping for environmental policy change must also work on becoming conscious consumers.