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  • Writer's pictureEva

Can You Be a Conscious Consumer?

Updated: Apr 26

We are often made to think that by making better individual choices in our own lives that we are also creating a better, more sustainable world. Maybe boycotting Sabra makes you feel better about not giving your money to a company that sends literal care packages to the Israeli Defense Forces... or not buying Chick Fil A makes you feel better that you didn't contribute to the 1.8 million dollars they donated to lgbtq+ hate organizations... but are these individual decisions actually creating systematic change?

Now don't get all upset... I'm not telling you to stop being a vegan or buying hemp clothes from Eileen Fischer because you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Be my guest!

But if you think that your conscious consumerism is the sole answer for actually making progress,

I think you're wrong.

Of course, like with any boycott, these stark economic and behavioral shifts do create important political awareness. Shutting down a busy highway or everyone skipping their morning coffee at Starbucks does create buzz. These movements are not a "lost cause." But I would argue that they are a small cause-- a tiny blip in dismantling the system at large.

I would argue that this kind of activism is geared towards the affluent-- people who are often able to make many more choices without being impacted by the consequences associated with them in their day-to-day lives.

If you stop buying Starbucks for a month you won't ruin Starbucks as a company, but you will prevent their workers from leaving with their usual amount of cash tips.


Consumerism is an integral part of American capitalist culture. We are constantly making choices. Many which we don't even consciously think about. You are bombarded with advertisements all the time. On the tv. On the radio. All over social media. And now that we have influencers marketing products for the every day American, consuming products has become even more personal. Now your friends and role model are recommending products, not just some rando. Even if you are the most sustainable person in the world there are probably many things you do without even thinking about it that you are not consciously consuming. Lets talk clothes for example.

The clothing market is so extremely saturated with the US alone producing 25 billion pounds of textiles a year. That makes about 82 pounds per person which out of that 15% get recycled and a whopping 85% goes to an overloaded landfill. It was only recently that the rise of individual and conscious recycling efforts began working it's way into peoples' everyday lives. But textiles only made up 5.2% of all recyclables. These statistics are beyond depressing. and for every person that recycles their clothes or sends them to Goodwill to be reused (and eventually get thrown out anyway), there are hundreds of thousands of other people that throw out their "old" clothes to buy new trendy styles. The only clothing company I know that recycles all their stuff is the Eileen Fisher Renew Collection... but it literally costs $100 for a good sweater so unfortunately... I'll pass.

Fast fashion companies are extremely popular right now. They sell trending and inexpensive clothes that get delivered to your door in less than 3 days. PLUS with less shops and boutiques open during of the pandemic, fast fashion companies like FashionNova are making more money than ever. FashionNova, which became popular by the influencers / celebrities like Kylie Kardashian and Cardi B was valued at $450 million in net worth June of 2020. God knows how much they'll make in the future. In an article from Alden Wicker, sustainable fashion writer and expert, she describes that it "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."

I want to assure you guys-- I'm really not trying to discourage you from recycling your clothes or making better choices. Everyone should be striving towards that. I just wish that we had better systems that would make it easier for all people to practice these sustainable measures. But the truth is that individual change is only part of creating large-scale change. In order to create a significant difference large corporations and companies must create laws in order to stop these problems from spiraling out of control. And I hate to tell you... they already have.

Individual efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle primarily pose problems because they do not address the people who do not have money or resources to access these services.

Wicker mentions this issue of privilege when it comes to individual environmentalism. The recent neoliberal sustainability movement obviously appeals to wealthier people who can "choose" to be healthier or make more sustainable choices. A lot of people don't have the option to just choose to pick a better company or product than another. For example, let's take an experience at Oberlin College. I shop for groceries primarily at Walmart, not for the ambiance, their incredible sustainable practices, or their incredible customer service-- I shop there because it's cheap. You can buy a notebook at Walmart for $1, which is a steal compared to their neighboring local shops. Many of my peers shop for supplies in town at the cute little bookstores called Ben Franklin or the Ginko Art Gallery & Store. While I think those places are great, they sell supplies at three to four times the cost compared to Walmart. Students shop there partially because they can (since Oberlin kids are known to have money) and partially because it's extremely convenient to shop directly on campus. But if I have the choice and am spending my own money I'm going to get my ass over to the Walmart. This is a pretty silly comparison but I think you get the point.

How does this logic apply to other people that simply cannot decide to eat "better" or shop "better" because they do not have the money or resources to do so?

Let's consider water, for example. The water bottle industry is valued at a little over $16 billion dollars. Perrier mineral water became the first bottled water brand to become incredibly successful due to its French sounding name and chic look. Soon other companies followed suit and branded their products health and wellness such as Evian which bragged about their "natural electrolytes" and perfect 7.2pH balance. Afterwards, soda companies wanted to infiltrate the expanding water bottle market inc. Coca Cola's Dasani & PepsiCo's Aquafina... so why do people buy and drink so much bottled water? Well the first major reason is our lifestyle. In the US during 2018, 89% of bottled water consumption was done while traveling. Essentially, they're easy to grab on the road. We have very little accessible free or clean water while traveling to and from work or long distances. I only bring a water bottle to school but it's not in my daily routine to carry one around all the time (which it should be). The other main reason is safety and quality. According to the Water Quality Association, "47% of 18-34 year olds do not think that their own water is safe; therefore 41.4% consume bottled water regularly (SBDC Net)." Flint, Michigan for example is probably the most known city with a water crisis but it isn't the only one. According to Business Insider from 1938 and 2015, between 9 to 45 million Americans got their drinking water from sources that violated the EPA's standards. Some of the cities mentioned in the article with contaminated water inc. Pittsburg, Milwaukee, Detroit, Newark, Washington DC, Baltimore, Dos Palos, Charleston and the list goes on. So what are people supposed to do when their water supply is shit?? Buy it bottled.

Water is a perfect example on how our society makes decisions and capitalizes on even the most basic human needs. It's even a problem on the individual level. An average American family wastes about 180 gallons of water per week. 180 GALLONS. The EPA states on their website that we can actually save "20% less water if we were to install water efficient fixtures and appliances." and while i would love love to tell you that carrying your Hydro Flask around is your incredibly important impact on changing the world, I can't help but also think about the ways that millions of other Americans are wasting all the water you've "saved." The point is, we need to change the behaviors of people, the broken systems in which we are inherently subjected to, and that all starts by implementing laws and regulations that specifically target large corporations. We need to make recycling, safe access to water sources, and the ability to make better and more sustainable choices accessible to everyone.

So no, I'm not telling you to stop being vegan or buying hemp clothes or using your Hydro Flask. Cause those are all good things to be doing. I'm just saying that in order to create real change we must think bigger. Wicker writes at the end of her article, "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."

So what should we be doing? Wicker provides some great examples–

  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 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.

  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.

Some other ideas could be more geared to positive impacts in your community. Start a local garden and build a team of people willing to work with you. Create an initiative to compost in your development. Campaign for a political candidate who will prioritize the environment...

So basically conscious consumerism is a morally good movement. It is honorable to put your money into products and businesses that are better than others if you have the luxury to do so. But businesses and products have one thing in mind-- money. They can claim that they made this product to help with an environmental issue or that they will donate proceedes of their profits to an organization but they still exist in a primarily capitalist framework.

In order to really create change we need to turn the focus away from ourselves and into making systemic changes within communities. We need to vote people into office who care about the environment. We need to put focus into politics rather than our own interests.

Thanks for listening. This was fun to write. Now I'm going to grab a Starbucks frap.

Just kidding!


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