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Conscious Consumerism is a Lie

By Alden Wicker on Sunday March 12th, 2017

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Making Choices That Go Further

As a sustainable lifestyle blogger, my job is to make conscious consumerism look good. Over the course of four years Instagramming eco-friendly outfits, testing non-toxic nail polish brands, and writing sustainable city guides, I became a proponent of having it all—fashion, fun, travel, beauty—while still being eco-friendly. So when I was invited to speak on a panel in front of the UN Youth Delegation, the expectation was that I’d dispense wisdom to bright young students about how their personal purchasing choices can help save the world.

I stood behind the dais in a secondhand blouse, recycled polyester tights, and a locally made pencil skirt, took a deep breath, and began to speak.

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.

The audience looked back at me, blinking and silent. This was not what they expected.

Where We Got it All Wrong

According to the lore of conscious consumerism, every purchase you make is a ‘moral act’—an opportunity to ‘vote with your dollar’ for the world you want to see. We are told that if we don’t like what a company is doing, we should stop buying their products and force them to change. We believe that if we give consumers transparency and information, they’ll make the right choice. But sadly, this is not the way capitalism is set up to work.

Making series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Case in point: A 2012 study compared footprints of ‘green’ consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers. And they found no meaningful difference between the two.

Vote with your dollarWe think conscious consumerism is an opportunity to ‘vote with our dollar.’

The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late. For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.

There’s also the issue of privilege. The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—and it most certainly is. You need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options, the leisure time to research the purchasing decisions you make, the luxury to turn up your nose at 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably, a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.

Choosing fashion made from hemp, grilling the waiter about how your fish was caught, and researching whether your city can recycle bottle caps might make you feel good, reward a few social entrepreneurs, and perhaps protect you from charges of hypocrisy. But it’s no substitute for systematic change.

Environmentalism, Brought to You by Multinational, Inc.

I came to this conclusion myself through years of personal research, but other academics have devoted their lives to uncovering the fallacy of conscious consumption. One of those sustainability experts is Halina Szejnwald Brown, professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University. She recently authored a report for the United Nations Environmental Programme, ‘Fostering and Communicating Sustainable Lifestyles: Principles and Emerging Practices.’ We met sharing the stage at the UN Youth Delegation, where her presentation backed up my suspicions with research and data.

In short, consumption is the backbone of the American economy—which means individual conscious consumerism is basically bound to fail. Brown told me in a later interview:

70% of GDP in the US is based on household consumption. So all the systems, the market, the institutions, everything is calibrated to maximize consumption… The whole marketing industry and advertising invents new needs we didn’t know we had.

Take plastic water bottles, for example. Plastic, as most of us now know, is made from petroleum that takes hundreds of years—or maybe even a thousand—to biodegrade (scarily, we’re not really sure yet). Shipping bottled water from Fiji to New York City is also an emission-heavy process. And yet, despite the indisputable facts and the consistent campaigning by nonprofits, journalists, and activists to urge consumers to carry reusable water bottles, bottled water consumption has continued to rise—even though it costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.

Plastic waste on the risePlastic waste is only increasing, despite efforts to encourage conscious use.

So why do we continue to buy 1.7 billion half-liter bottles, or five bottles for every person, every single week? Because market capitalism makes it incredibly difficult to make truly helpful sustainable choices.

The majority of our food and consumer products come wrapped in plastics that aren’t recyclable. Food that is free of pesticides is more expensive. We’re working ever-longer hours, which leaves little time for sitting down to home-cooked meals, much less sewing, mending, and fixing our possessions. Most of those clothes have been designed in the first place to be obsolete after a year or two, just so that you’ll buy more. And only 2% of that clothing is made in the US—and when it is, it’s 20% more expensive. Palm oil, an ingredient that is the world’s leading cause of rainforest destruction and carbon emissions, is in half of our packaged food products, hidden behind dozens of different names. These are just a few examples of how the government and businesses collude to nudge you into blindly destroying the environment on a regular basis, whether you choose to buy organic milk or not.

Then there are the social impediments to making sustainable decisions. Brown says:

We as humans are highly social beings. We measure our progress in life in relation to others… The result is that it is very difficult to do something different from what everybody else is doing.

In order to shun consumer culture, we have to shun social mores. You can dig through dumpsters for perfectly edible food that restaurants and grocery stores have tossed out. You can absolutely return every holiday or birthday gift that doesn’t adhere to your high standards. And you can demand that your friends and family serve only raw, vegan, organic food at social gatherings, and go on hunger strike when they don’t. But to do so would mean becoming an insufferable human being. Society is weighted against us, too.

The social difficulties of conscious consumptionShunning consumer culture can be ostracizing.

How to Actually Make Decisions that Help the Environment

So what’s the answer? I’m not saying that we should all give up, or that we should stop making the small positive decisions we make every day as responsible humans. And if you’re choosing the greener product for health reasons, by all means, do what feels right.

But when it comes to combating climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, what we need to do is take the money, time, and effort we spend making these ultimately inconsequential choices and put it toward something that really matters.

Beyond making big lifestyle decisions, such as choosing to live in a dense urban area with public transportation, cutting red meat out of your diet, and having fewer children (or none at all), there are diminishing returns to the energy you put into avoiding plastic or making sure your old AAs end up in the appropriate receptacle.

Globally, we’re projected to spend $9.32 billion in 2017 on green cleaning products. If we had directed even a third of that pot of money (the typical markup on green cleaning products) toward lobbying our governments to ban the toxic chemicals we’re so afraid of, we might have made a lot more progress by now. “It’s a gesture,” Brown says of fretting over these small decisions. “Well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference.”

We pat ourselves on the back for making decisions that hush our social guilt instead of placing that same effort in actions that enact real environmental change. But there are small switches in our mentality we can take to make a difference.

Support large scale solutionsPutting our money towards organizations creating larger scale solutions is more impactful.

A Few Suggestions:

1. Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.

2. Instead of driving to an organic apple orchard to pick your own fruit, use that time to volunteer for an organization that combats food deserts (and skip the fuel emissions, too).

3. Instead of buying a $200 air purifier, donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air and water clean.

4. Instead of signing a petition, demanding that Subway removes one obscure chemical from its sandwich bread, call your local representatives to demand they overhaul the approval process for the estimated 80,000 untested chemicals in our products.

5. Instead of taking yourself out to dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant, you could take an interest in the Farm Bill and how it incentivizes unhealthy eating.

On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.

So if you really care about the environment, climb on out of your upcycled wooden chair and get yourself to a town hall meeting. If there’s one silver lining to the environmental crisis facing us, it’s that we now understand exactly the kind of work we need to do to save the planet—and it doesn’t involve a credit card.

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Words By Alden Wicker

Originally posted on Quartz, A digitally native news outlet publishing bracingly creative and intelligent journalism, with a broad worldview.

 

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7 Responses to Conscious Consumerism is a Lie

  1. Dont you realize how important it is for the farmers who own ecologically sound farms and orchards etc to have people COME to the farms and pick-it or pick it up? That the discussion of what fair market value actually is for producers matters? We do not over process or use plastics or create the waste anywhere of the scale commercial ones do.

    We are light years ahead of where we were just 20 years ago with making sure producers who are creating healthy foods get recognition AND the products get sold directly or via restaurants to the consumers AND consumers are able to get healthy foods. Exposure, education and knowledge that there are other ways to eat and live are what drive people to make decisions and have “some” control over their lives and their impact on the earth. A very real impact that is measurable and counts.

    Dont ridicule what consumers are doing to improve their “micro” worlds by making ecologically sound choices. Dont ignore the macro wold either. Instead, build upon what people have been doing, dont knock it down.

  2. I do understand where this article is coming from, spending an excessive amount on some of the products that claim green doesn’t always do the job. But I also have a few major problems with it.

    First of, don’t discourage people from trying to make better choices when making purchases. The examples that were used as “conscious consumerism” were extremes, not the only way to go about trying to make daily choices that reduce your environmental impact. It is a time intensive choice to make and there are many lessons to learn about it. For example, making the choice to switch to a reusable water bottle instead of plastic does in fact reduce plastic that is manufactured and reduce plastic going into the ocean. However, buying a stainless steal water bottle will take a lot of uses before the footprint from it’s creation is off-set. We are still learning about how to really make the best choices. But having more people involved in learning about these choices by actively seeking out better products is how we are going to be able to move forward as a society. NOT but complying with what we are given now at grocery stores and asking the government to add more regulations that we may come to find don’t make sense in the future.

    As CC said, many companies are changing their habits and how they produce their food because of the shift that consumers have made to asking for more sustainable products. No it’s not perfect but it is going to be a long road to get there. If we don’t support local businesses and farms now they won’t be there later on.

  3. Be a conscious consumer AND be politically active. For some people conscious consumerism may be the gateway to political awareness. It’s very important to support businesses who are making the effort to be sustainable too. Every little bit helps. And if it’s trendy organic sheets that get people listening, then buy the sheets. Support organic cotton production. And Fair Trade means people are being paid fairly which is a subversive act chipping away at capitalism from the inside.

  4. This started so well, but gets woolly, navel-gazey and self-flagellating by the end. And then it really falls down on providing ‘the answers’. I’m aware that there isn’t an all-encompassing ‘answer’, but telling people not to do one thing but instead do another (when there’s nothing to stop them doing both) is disingenuous.

    We get it. We already feel worried that we’re doing the wrong thing, or making counter-productive choices, but telling us we should just stop without identifying which of those choices is really wrong isn’t helping. Those of us taking the time to research before we buy, go out of our way to make ethical choices, do without rather than buying something we don’t truly need ALSO lobby companies, add our voices to petitions whilst trying to vote with our wallets.

    There’s an assumption that those making ethical choices are somehow smug, holier than thou or resting on their laurels: ‘I’ve done my bit’, which doesn’t chime with the people I know who are struggling to be more ethical day by day.

    I approve of the article, but I think it was posted too soon before all the research was done. Don’t tell us what we already know (that capitalism and social behaviour is fighting against us; that ‘ethical’ choices are often overpriced greenwash), truly identify what we could be doing better that doesn’t just mean handing the baton to someone else (supporting politicians?) who may or may not run with it.

  5. Typically an American styled article ; If you can’t beat em , join em (lol) resistance is futile….

    9,32 billion in 2017 on green-cleaning-products ? This amount of money looks stupendously big.
    I am A] curious how many billions is spent on not-green-cleaning-products ? and B] why are these many 1000’s of millions spent not making an impact ?

    The incline of cancer-patients has a growth almost similar and parallel to the uprise and incline of processed-food (western-diet).

    The global political arena needs a big overhaul because our current governments are steering towards conflict and chaos in order to subdue the (divided) masses. So, for us to keep supporting a failing political structure is what kills the green-on-earth. It’s not our choice for a cotton t-shirt or choice to only eat vegetables that needs to change.

    So I agree with Tracy’s comment (below) where she says : “BE A CONSCIOUS CONSUMER AND POLITICALLY ACTIVE !!” a point that’s illuded by the author of this article…. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a43870a759d25a79b7a0813d1d6c1067b44b0e54151c4a5f0eb207bb1dee0aa0.jpg

  6. I loved this article – thank you. I couldn’t agree more! I wish more people would recognise that the values, systems and organisational structures that we have been born into and live in are not in alignment with what is needed to solve the problems it has created. Making small changes do make us feel like we are not completely powerless, but unless we change the system, all efforts will be minimal compared to what is actually required.
    The system needs changing. The way we organise society, our economies, our political systems need changing – RADICAL CHANGE – because only radical change will create radical improvements. Small change creates small improvements. And our world needs RADICAL IMPROVEMENT.
    It might not be popular, it might not be comfortable – but it is necessary if we want to have a happier, healthier, more fair and just world.
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts – a very valuable and much needed part of the conversation.

  7. You have a faith in our democracy that I don’t have. Money rules politics, and lobbying by the people will never amount to much when you have corporations funding our political parties. This brings us back to voting with our wallet – I still think it’s the best idea and will work in the end once enough people become aware. Politics is a lost cause in most of our Western democracies, where politicians change yet the policies remain the same.

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