Conscious Consumption – Does It Even Make a Difference?

Walk into any Whole Food’s grocery store and you are immediately overwhelmed; not just by the vast assortment of products, but by the feeling you get, like it’s your civic duty to shop there. The illusion that since most of the products were made “responsibly” that no harm was done.

The reality is that everything causes harm to some extent or another – there isn’t a way of avoiding this, at least not yet. Even if you are buying Recycled Toilet Paper, Organic Fuji Apples, Fair Trade Coffee, Non-GMO Cookies, B Corp Certified Diapers or Beer brewed with solar power, it still requires energy and the extraction of resources to produce it. This doesn’t mean that these products are not worth consideration or that they aren’t a better alternative to their conventional counterparts, they most certainly are, however they are not a free pass to consume as much as you’d like.

Shopping As a Form of Activism

I sense that I’m going to catch a lot of hell for this, but I don’t believe that buying products, no matter how green, counts as activism – it’s just not.  Even though making mindful purchasing decisions is a step in the right direction, it ranks pretty low in terms of importance. It’s like bringing a reusable bag with you to the store, is it going to save the world? No. But it might encourage others to think twice before using something once (maybe twice?), only to throw it away after they’re done with it.

 Professor of Social Science at Yale-Nus College, Michael Maniates points out that this approach to activism promotes three misconceptions: “1. (That) our greatest source of power as individuals is our role as consumers; 2. We humans, by nature, aren’t interested or willing to do anything that isn’t easy; and 3. Change will only happen if we convince every single person on the planet to join us.” (The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard)

Here’s the thing: 1,000+ non-green products are sold for every 1 green product that you buy. So the solution isn’t a matter of buying more sustainable products but instead addressing design at the production level – what sustainability designer Bill McDonough calls the “first sign of human intent.” By addressing the way a product is made, packaged, shipped and sold we can start moving away from the current throwaway business model.

“The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.” – Benjamin Barber

Every Action Has An Opposite Re-Action

When it comes to having a social impact I would love to believe that all I had to do to help make a difference was to shop, so long as I was getting the right stuff. The marketing of such products fills us with a sense of having done something good, but that’s only true when the purchase was necessary in the first place. Plenty of advertisers exploit this “do good” feeling we get in the form of “Greenwashing”, i.e. making something appear green to increase its likelihood of selling; knowing full well that the feeling of doing something good overrides any guilt we may feel from shopping thoughtlessly.

You should put a reasonable amount of thought into any purchases that you make. If you are shopping out of boredom or to distract yourself from a personal problem then it doesn’t matter how ethically made that Patagonia jacket is, you’re acquiring something you don’t need or have any practical use for. Frivolous consumption is reckless regardless of what you buy – period.

Conscious Consumption – Redefined

We need to redefine what it means to consume “Consciously”. As it stands today, the belief is that we can consume as much as we want so long as the products were made with the environment, people, or animal welfare in mind – this is not a solution to the world’s ills, this is just a way to feel good about bad habits.

The only kind of consumerism that will have a positive impact on the world at large is none. Solving the challenges we face requires more than making subtle changes in our buying habits. By trading one bad habit for another we are only changing the color of the hamster wheel – we still remain stuck in a vicious cycle of perpetual want.


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6 thoughts on “Conscious Consumption – Does It Even Make a Difference?

  1. Excellent post. You hit on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Conspicuous consumption is still conspicuous consumption no matter how “green” the items being purchased. Yes, buying that environmentally sustainable, living wage, and animal friendly item is better than the alternative in so many ways. But if you buy it only to discard it in favor of the next new and best or more current or trendy environmentally sustainable, living wage and animal friendly item then you’re still operating in conspicuous consumption mode. We’re a nation of shopaholics.


  2. I don’t know why you’d catch heck for saying shopping green isn’t activism. I’m not an activist. I know that. I’m just another shopper at the grocery store. I know my purchase this week of locally grown, organic tomatoes didn’t change the world, wasn’t even heard, wasn’t seen . . . but it mattered to the farmer in the adjacent county who grew them. I simply want to encourage him to keep going in his efforts to farm responsibly, so I buy those (REALLY good ) tomatoes.

    Liked by 2 people

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