“Conscientious Consumerism”, or How You Can Actually Be More Sustainable
Consumers are more conscientious than ever before about what they buy, how it was produced, who produced it.
This idea, that as consumers in a capitalist society we can make our voice heard with our wallets, is both powerful and pervasive. It is powerful because it gives us the consumers — the “little guys” — a feeling of control.
Consumers now think they have real power and producers make that power real by thinking about them.
There are two uncomfortable (dare I say, inconvenient?) truths:
Truth #1: We are not as conscientious as we think we are
We might be conscientious with respect to buying food or not driving, but rarely are we as conscientious about buying everything. The reason: it is really hard to do all that research.
When you buy clothes do you look to see if it uses cotton that is produced using fair wage and labor standards? Otherwise it is highly likely that your cotton comes from a place like Uzbekistan where the entire country is forcibly mobilized to pick cotton.
When we buy furniture do we ask when we buy furniture whether the wood is from sustainable forests?
Do we check to make sure our cellphones and computers don’t have ingredients from conflict zones (to my knowledge FairPhone is the only company that does this)?
Chances are unless you are an incredibly dedicated and an excellent researcher, you might not even know these issues exist, or, even if you do, you likely won’t have enough information to make an informed choice on THAT basis because most companies don’t report these things consistently.
There are a very small handful of people make these kinds of decisions on every single thing they buy, but it’s relatively rare, mostly because it would be incredibly exhausting. And it’s exhausting because companies don’t make it easy to discern this information and the ones that do (like FairPhone) are extremely rare and are usually small producers.
Truth #2: What we do as consumers doesn’t matter that much
We have even less control than we could even conceive of with respect to changing production patterns. The control is still entirely with the producers.
If the product doesn’t have a strong brand or has only a small set of producers, a consumer boycott might impact that company, but will have relatively little impact on changing how an item is produced — the entire problem that a boycott or changed consumption is trying to address.
Even more difficult, it is very hard for companies to know why customers are moving away from their products. Sustainability might be one reason or it could be any number of others.
Large companies can usually very easily appease boycotts — they can make changes that are really surface level but appear to be much greater than they are (like signing an non-binding international agreement with other companies to “make standards higher”). “Greenwashing” is a popular term for this as applied to environmental initiatives.
Perhaps worse, consumers usually target retailers who have enough strength to force changes on its suppliers (e.g. a boycott of a brand carried by Walmart might actually have an impact but boycotting a food brand at a local grocery store is unlikely to change how the product is produced). And those boycotts are more likely to have the effect of simply removing the item from that particular set of retailers (or the aforementioned “greenwashing”) but not actually changing a company’s production of a product.
Our “conscientiousness” is also very often highly fragmented and based on unrealistic expectations of what producers can actually do.
An Example to Illustrate the Problem: Chocolate from Ivory Coast
For instance, you might have an issue with how chocolate is produced in Ivory Coast which is the source of over 30% of the world’s cocoa. Their local industry relies on the work of 1.2 million children— many of whom are illegally trafficked in from neighboring countries like Mali and Burkino Faso. In 2001, the major chocolate manufacturers got together to try to stop this.
But almost 20 years later, it is still happening in large enough numbers to put chocolate from Ivory Coast on child labor watchlist and Ivory Coast on the State Department’s Tier 2 Watchlist for human trafficking. The methods of production also happen to lead to widescale deforestation.
So, does a conscientious consumer not buy from companies sourcing chocolate from Ivory Coast?
Boycott the companies that have pressured the Ivorian government to take active steps to make the lives of cocoa farmers better (so they won’t have to employ child labor, slave or otherwise)?
Boycott the companies that keep in business perfectly legitimate smallholder farmers in Ivory Coast? (There is almost no way to distinguish one from another once the cocoa gets to the wholesalers within Ivory Coast as they are after all selling hundreds of millions of tons of cocoa a year.
More than all of this, who has the time time to do all of this research on everything they buy?
In this example, the chocolate companies, not the consumers have real power. Unless you are buying tens of thousands of chocolate bars a year (in which case you have other problems), your likely impact won’t even be noticed.
But, some say, if we all band together and do it, our united impact is greater.
Sure. But still not a big one.
The people with the greatest impact are the ones who work at big chocolate manufacturers. They are the ones whose minds you should try to change. If you don’t know them, seek them out and engage with them in conversation. It doesn’t matter if they work in accounting.
So…Should I Just Give Up?
No. There are three things you can do that will make the biggest impact.
First, advocate for change by the much larger organizations that you are apart of. This means your local, state, and federal governments. This means the company that you work for or at. Be an active change agent in those organizations. Even a small adjustment by them — such as switching to FSC paper — will make a much bigger impact than anything you do alone.
Second, stop buying so much stuff. The reason it is so difficult to be sustainable in your individual purchases is because of sheer volume. We only have so much capacity for information. If you don’t buy things that often, you will have a much easier path to finding out enough information about it and do it right. This will also force you to reuse a lot of what you have in a bid to save yourself from the mental energy (and cost) of buying something new (another big environmental win).
Third, when you buy, spend time before you spend money. For this, think of your next purchase of jeans.
Jeans are relatively simple because they have few component parts as compared to say, a smartphone. The inputs are cotton for the jeans and threads, metal for the zippers/buttons, and dye. The dye has to be put on the jeans which usually happens by boiling the jeans in the dye with water. The dye water excess is then treated and the waste water is disposed of back into the watershed.
If your regulations from government are strong, the water is treated up to drinking standards then re-released. But to do that treatment, the company must also use chemicals to dose the dirty water to make it clean and these chemicals must be disposed of, usually as part of a reverse osmosis system.
Add to this the simple fact that companies must, by their very nature in a capitalist system, OVERproduce the goods they sell (very few industries have sufficient systems to produce exactly the number of goods needed by consumers — this is why accurate forecasting can be so important to sustainable production).
So, you as a consumer want to make the “sustainable” decision and you find a company that produces the least waste in creating your jeans. Hint: you will likely end up settling for “raw denim”. You will pay more for these jeans. But they will last — potentially — a lifetime.
You should buy better stuff because it is better — it lasts longer and saves you more money in the long-term and is better for the environment. Cheap fast fashion jeans wear out quickly and over the long-term cost your more (this is typical btw — rich people can afford higher cost goods that last longer and cost less over time while poor people don’t have the cash up front so end up paying more for things over time thereby helping to keep them in a poverty cycle).
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t care about what you buy — you should care more! The biggest opportunities are with the organizations and communities that we find ourselves in.