Does ‘Conscious Consumerism’ Work? Rethinking Our Indiviual Actions

                                                                            Photo: Wanda He

Last year, we published A Different Way: Living Simply in a Complex World, one of our newest course books which considers the benefits of pursuing a simple life, the ways in which simplicity can become an act of privilege, and how to take the commitment to simple living beyond our individual selves.

A guiding question at Northwest Earth Institute is how our individual actions can move us in the direction of systemic change, which is why the article we’re featuring in today’s blog post caught our attention. In Alden Wicker’s article, Conscious Consumerism is a Lie. Here’s a Better Way to Change the World, he highlights the limitations of conscious consumerism and invites us to think and act beyond “small steps taken by thoughtful consumers.”  As Wicker says, “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…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.”

Below is an excerpt from Wicker’s article, Conscious Consumerism is a Lie. To read the full piece, click here

…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…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. 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 professor 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. “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,” Brown told me in a later interview. “The whole marketing industry and advertising invents new needs we didn’t know we had.”…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.

So what’s the answer?…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…But there are small switches in our mentality we can take to make a difference. A few suggestions:

  • Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.
  • 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).
  • Instead of buying a $200 air purifier, donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air and water clean.
  • Instead of signing a petition demanding that Subway remove 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.
  • 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…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.

For the full article, click here


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