Conscious consumerism otherwise referred to as ‘ethical consumption’ is a big part of the sustainability movement. I would also say, it’s possibly the easiest and most efficient way to implement sustainability into your life but we’ll get more into this later. Conscious consumerism encourages us to be more mindful of the impact our daily habits have on the environment and also on the lives of the people who are affected by our actions. It’s about putting our values and morals at the forefront and creating a more ethical standard for consumption. Conscious consumerism extends to many sectors in life from what we eat, what we wear, our mode of transportation, etc.
We live in a capitalist society that promotes excessive material possessions. People have been influenced by developing a habit of consuming more than necessary. As we know this has dire consequences for the environment; resource depletion, environmental degradation and long term consequences for the overall health of our ecosystems. Our daily habits also have a direct impact on the lives of people and communities perhaps far away from our living environment. Majority of mainstream companies have unfair business practices which means most of the goods we consume are delivered to us, wrapped in injustices. Take for example something as simple as wallet/purse which is an item that almost everyone owns and uses on a daily basis. If you purchased that item for roughly $20 but a child made it in a rundown, hazardous factory in Bangladesh and was paid only 10 cents for it, then indirectly you are supporting that child’s exploitation with your dollar. Most people would never directly support companies that engage in child labour or other unfair practices but when people consume things without making an effort to assess the impact of their action then they become complicit in injustice.
There are so many people who want to make more ethical choices but the sustainability movement is unfortunately plagued with privilege. I recognise that ethically made products can be either not accessible or affordable to most people but there are ways we can participate regardless of our financial status. There is a model I find helpful called ‘The Buyerarchy of Needs’ (a spin-off of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). This model places buying new items as the final option and provides alternatives to excessive consumption. At the very basic level, it suggests that people should use the items they already have. As humans, we are driven by a constant desire to chase after and obtain the things we don’t have. Ironically, when we do obtain new items, we rarely use it to its full capacity before we discard it. For instance, when it comes to fashion, most people are lured in by marketing which influences them into purchasing more clothes than they need just to keep up with trends that come and go each month. Our economy thrives off of consumption which is why new items we didn’t even know we want emerge all the time (e.g. AirPods) and we have to resist the temptation to follow trends that don’t serve us or the environment any value.
The other alternative to buying things is borrowing the things you need from family, friends, neighbours etc. Sharing things and borrowing from one another may not be everyone’s cup of tea but economically, it makes sense to borrow items that you rarely use. E.g. tools, books, formal wear, etc. Another alternative is swapping things. You can do this with people in your life who are willing to swap with the things you need or you can sell your items online. This method helps to keep items to be used longer and keeps it away from landfill. If borrowing/swapping is not an option for you and directly purchasing from sustainable brands is out of your budget, then consider thrifting. I remember years ago, there was a stigma attached to thrifting but now that the sustainable movement is driven by conscious consumers, thrifting has become a way for people to fight fast fashion, overconsumption and throwaway culture all at once. It’s a good way to save money and find unique classic items that represent your personal style, not just clothes that adhere to temporary trends. The final step is to make your own things as opposed to purchasing new items. This may seem daunting but learning a new skill can be a very fun and beneficial process. For instance, you can learn to make your own soaps, candles, cleaning products, clothes and the list goes on. From an ethical standpoint and if like me, you too are on a journey towards living a more sustainable lifestyle then I would highly suggest for people to only purchase items that you need or are investment pieces. This can range from reusable items, hygiene products to clothing items and even biodegradable packaged goods. Take care of the things you own and avoid unnecessary overconsumption whenever possible. I’ll go into more detail about some of these concepts in future posts.
I’ll also point out that, there are some people who are sceptical about this idea of conscious consumerism and believe that in a capitalist society, it makes no major difference. People who hold this view raise a valid point that consumers shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for changing the structural injustices in the world. It would be more useful to shift the focus from consumers and actually hold major companies accountable for unfair practices; this is where real, long-lasting changes happen. This can include, lobbying governments, funding major environmental projects and providing constructive criticism to companies regarding the impact their products have on the environment and people.
From my perspective, sustainability is a lifestyle that you gradually grow into, trying to make all the changes at once can be very ineffective. The key is to tweak your daily habits until you get to a stage where what you are consuming adds value to your life and feels morally right to you. These small changes may not solve the bigger issues overnight but it does make a direct difference in your life. It allows you to live out your values and not be caught in the global trend of overconsumption. It teaches you there is more to life than consumerism and chasing material possessions. With almost anything in life, structural changes can take a significant amount of time to catch on and the hardest part is changing people’s attitudes and actions. As overused as the following saying is, small acts, when multiplied by millions of people can transform the world. We got a glimpse of this recently when people took a stance against the harmful environmental impact of plastic straws. A small change has led to a structural change now that South Australia has become the first Australian state to introduce laws banning some single-use plastics including cutlery, straws and stirrers. I’m confident that sustainability is the way forward and in time it will pierce through the structural systems that limit its progress. Take some time to think about how your daily actions impact the environment and fellow humans. I’ll end with this question, do your daily choices of consumption align with your personal values?
Make sure to leave your comments and I’ll be sure to get back to you.
Until then, take care of yourselves and stay safe.