As a sustainable lifestyle blogger, my job is to make conscious consumerism look good. Over the course of four years Instagramming eco-friendly outfits, testing non-toxic nail polish brands, and writing sustainable city guides, I became a proponent of having it all—fashion, fun, travel, beauty—while still being eco-friendly. So when I was invited to speak on a panel in front of the UN Youth Delegation, the expectation was that I’d dispense wisdom to bright young students about how their personal purchasing choices can help save the world.
I stood behind the dais in a secondhand blouse, recycled polyester tights, and a locally made pencil skirt, took a deep breath, and began to speak. “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers—to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester—will not change the world.”
The audience looked back at me, blinking and silent. This was not what they expected.
Where we got it all wrong
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. We are told that if we don’t like what a company is doing, we should stop buying their products and force them to change. We believe that if we give consumers transparency and information, they’ll make the right choice. But sadly, this is not the way capitalism is set up to work.
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. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Case in point: A 2012 study compared footprints of “green” consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers. And they found no meaningful difference between the two.
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, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. 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.
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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.”
Take plastic water bottles, for example. Plastic, as most of us now know, is made from petroleum that takes hundreds of years—or maybe even a thousand—to biodegrade (scarily, we’re not really sure yet). Shipping bottled water from Fiji to New York City is also an emission-heavy process. And yet, despite the indisputable facts and the consistent campaigning by nonprofits, journalists, and activists to urge consumers to carry reusable water bottles, bottled water consumption has continued to rise—even though it costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.
So why do we continue to buy 1.7 billion half-liter bottles, or five bottles for every person, every single week? Because market capitalism makes it incredibly difficult to make truly helpful sustainable choices.
The majority of our food and consumer products come wrapped in plastics that aren’t recyclable. Food that is free of pesticides is more expensive. We’re working ever-longer hours, which leaves little time for sitting down to home-cooked meals, much less sewing, mending, and fixing our possessions. Most of those clothes have been designed in the first place to be obsolete after a year or two, just so that you’ll buy more. And only 2% of that clothing is made in the US—and when it is, it’s 20% more expensive. Palm oil, an ingredient that is the world’s leading cause of rainforest destruction and carbon emissions, is in half of our packaged food products, hidden behind dozens of different names. These are just a few examples of how the government and businesses collude to nudge you into blindly destroying the environment on a regular basis, whether you choose to buy organic milk or not.
Then there are the social impediments to making sustainable decisions. “We as humans are highly social beings. We measure our progress in life in relation to others,” Brown says. “The result is that it is very difficult to do something different from what everybody else is doing.”
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.
How to actually make decisions that help the environment
So what’s the answer? I’m not saying that we should all give up, or that we should stop making the small positive decisions we make every day as responsible humans. And if you’re choosing the greener product for health reasons, by all means, do what feels right. But when it comes to combating climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, what we need to do is take the money, time, and effort we spend making these ultimately inconsequential choices and put it toward something that really matters.
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.
“It’s a gesture,” Brown says of fretting over these small decisions. “Well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference.“
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. 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. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.
So if you really care about the environment, climb on out of your upcycled wooden chair and get yourself to a town hall meeting. 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.