What It is, How It Can Affect Change, &
How to Be a Conscious Consumer Yourself
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From food and clothing to consumer electronics and vehicles, purchasing the things we need and want has always been an inevitable part of our everyday lives.
But what are the implications of buying something?
Its impact doesn’t stop at you spending money and using the product. There’s a whole process that takes a product from the raw material stage to being displayed on shelves, and not to mention what happens to it after it comes to the end of its useful life. Along with price and quality, consumers are increasingly concerned with the social impact of the products they buy from production to disposal.
Imagine your trips to the grocery store. When you peruse the aisles of seemingly endless food and drink, do you consider the impact of every item you add to your cart? Some consumers will ask themselves questions like: Where does this chicken breast come from? How was this chicken raised? What kind of impact does poultry farming have on climate change? Other consumers may focus on whether or not an item is on sale.
Some may even find themselves wondering about a product’s social impact and the best sales – these questions aren’t mutually exclusive!
What kinds of questions are you asking yourself when you go shopping?
The Rise of Conscious Consumerism
By now you probably have a pretty good idea of what conscious consumerism is, but to eliminate any doubt, here’s a quick definition: Conscious consumerism is driven by making purchase decisions that have a positive social, economic, environmental, and political impact.
In other words, it’s a movement whereby consumers vote with their dollar by buying ethical products or boycotting unethical companies.
Conscious consumerism (otherwise known as ethical consumerism or green consumerism) is a trend that grows more and more popular by the day.
But where did it get its start?
A Brief History of Conscious Consumerism
With a quick search of “conscious consumerism” and “conscious consumer,” you’ll find academic studies dating back to the 1970s. The first inklings of the modern concept of “dollar voting” can be traced back even further to 1954, when economist James Buchanan stated that individual participation in the economy is a form of pure democracy in Individual Choice in Voting and the Market.
Not surprisingly, formal consumer movements that advocated for consumer rights were developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in industrialized countries such as the UK and the USA. These movements came into existence to combat unfair labor practices, ensure product safety, encourage healthy competition in the market and implement financial regulation (e.g. cheaper access to credit and educating borrowers about loans).
Advocating for consumer rights remains an important aspect of participating in the marketplace today, but consumers have transformed what it means to be a consumer by placing a large focus on making responsible purchase decisions.
How the Conscious Consumption Movement Came to Prominence
As consumers become more aware (or conscious) of harsh realities tied to issues such as climate change and pollution, as well as grossly underpaid workers in poor working conditions, the more thoughtful they become with their purchases.
For example, health problems like asthma and typhoid have been linked to deteriorating air and water quality, and in extreme cases, decreased brain function and even death. To put this into perspective, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 12.6 million people die from environmental health risks every year. That number is enough to make anyone raise their eyebrows.
Intertwined in our purchase decisions is technology. At the click of a button, we can research a product and solicit the advice of strangers online about which products and companies are ethical or not. The methods and speed with which we share information has changed drastically (carrier pigeons no more!), which in turn, has transformed the way we shop online and offline.
How has Conscious Consumerism Changed the World?
Here’s an encouraging statistic: a whopping 73% of global consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.
As consumers become increasingly aware of consumer goods’ effects on their bodies and the world around them, they’re also interested in buying—and sometimes paying more—for products that help the environment (millennials are more likely to spend more on sustainable products). In fact, 41% of consumers from around the world say that they’re highly willing to pay more for products that contain all-natural or organic ingredients. In the US alone, consumers are expected to spend $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021.
But consumers are just one piece of the puzzle. Once that piece is in place, others start to fall into position accordingly. For example, before 2013, only 20% of S&P 500 companies chose to disclose their environmental, social and governance (ESG) information. In 2015, 85% of S&P 500 companies reported on their ESG status.
The Benefits of Conscious Consumerism
As an individual, it may be hard to see the benefits of being a conscious consumer.
What does buying organic soap or boycotting a company known for using sweatshops do in the long run? But adding up each person’s actions equates to big changes in the grand scheme of things. The same logic applies to harmful behavior such as littering. A person might be ok with throwing a candy wrapper on the sidewalk, but imagine if every single person had this attitude. Many parts of the world already have to deal with more waste than they know what to do with. Plus, remember the ESG statistics we just mentioned? Consumer opinion and individual action trigger exponential change!
When you buy ethical or fair trade products, you’re supporting companies and producers that:
- pay their workers a living wage
- provide workers with a healthy working environment
- hire workers of legal age
- engage in environmentally friendly practices
Take organic farming in the US as an example of how conscious consumerism can affect change: Twenty years ago, organic farming was a niche industry with $3.6 billion in sales in 1997. But as more consumers began to appreciate the idea of agriculture free from toxic synthetic pesticides that pollute air and water and degrade soil, they started shifting their purchases, starting with food. By 2016, organic food sales had boomed to $43.3 billion.
More good news: Consumer impact is having other world-and market-changing effects. It turns out choosing renewable energy is more than just a fashionable trend. Thanks to growing demand as more and more people are installing solar panels, buying renewable energy credits, and using green power for a variety of purposes, renewable energy sources have become even cheaper than coal and natural gas.
When we make the change from mindless to mindful consumption, things change. For the better.
Criticisms of the Conscious Consumption Movement
For all the praise that conscious consumerism and conscious consumers receive, there is continuing criticism of accessibility.
The fact of the matter is that many sustainable products are more expensive than their counterparts. In certain cases, they’re even considered luxury items. Needless to say, high-end luxury items are out of reach for many people. That being said, when we look at sustainable products that are minimally or moderately more expensive, conscious consumers have to consider the total cost in the long run. The fashion industry is a prime example of this. Sustainable fashion—clothing made from organic, reusable materials—can last for years whereas fast fashion from H&M and Forever 21 (who recently filed for bankruptcy) may get rips or tears after a few outings.
The more consumers demand ethical, organic, and fair trade products, the more commonplace they’ll be and the cheaper they’ll become, which makes them more accessible to everyone.
The reality is that oftentimes, what people say they want to do doesn’t align with what they actually do. Consumers want to make more ethical choices with their purchases, but unsurprisingly, price and convenience remain powerful driving factors. In certain cases, those are the determining factors for product choice which is why those consumers often opt for the cheapest product, regardless of the underlying ethical implications. The gargantuan success of Amazon is an example of exactly this.
The critics also find fault with shoppers that buy green products to look good and quell their guilt rather than doing so out of a genuine desire to help the planet and the people in it. The fact of the matter is, not everyone will be driven by the same things to help others and the planet – and that’s ok! The results of conscious consumerism are the same regardless of the motivations behind it.
Like any movement that aims to combat the status quo, it’s an ongoing effort that needs to grow and be cultivated. The good news is that there are signs of progress as we outlined above. The more consumers demand that companies behave ethically, the more likely they are to be conscious in their business decisions by considering all their stakeholders.
How to Be a Conscious Consumer Yourself
Regardless of the criticisms, there are many ways that you can be a conscious consumer and do your part in making the world a better place:
- Buy fair trade coffee, fashion, handicrafts, fruit and more
- Buy products that are made with natural ingredients and materials, e.g. organic cotton bed sheets
- Buy cruelty-free products such as toiletries and cosmetics
- Limit air travel and get around by using rideshare, biking, taking the train and public transport and if possible, drive electric vehicles
- Eat less red meat
- Eliminate the use of single-use plastics and use reusable cups, utensils, containers, and bags (like Stasher bags) instead.
- Reuse items and buy second-hand whenever you can: peruse to flea markets, borrow from friends and family, shop on online marketplaces and try to fix broken goods rather than buying new
- Always recycle paper and plastic and consider composting
- Incorporate minimalism into your life as much as possible
How Can You Determine Which Companies are Ethical?
Companies understand that being ethical is in vogue so their marketing messaging touts sustainability and ethical practices. While that may be a sign of the prevailing conscious consumer (woo!), it’s always good to look a little deeper to make sure companies are actually taking action consistent with what they’re promoting.
It can be hard to know what to look for when determining whether a company is ethical or not. But the Internet makes this quite easy to figure out—all you have to do is spend a few short minutes doing the research.
Conscious or ethical businesses are those that use eco-friendly items and materials, engage in sustainable production processes and fair treatment of their employees, donate time and money to NGOs and charities, use green energy, and more.
We suggest looking into which companies are certified B Corporations.
From their website:
Certifying as a B Corporation goes beyond product-or service-level certification. B Corp Certification is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. The B Impact Assessment evaluates how your company’s operations and business model impact your workers, community, environment, and customers. From your supply chain and input materials to your charitable giving and employee benefits, B Corp Certification proves your business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance.
So is Conscious Consumerism Actually a Good Thing?
It would be naive to say that buying things is going to save the planet; it won’t.
However, it would be equally naive to resign ourselves to inaction. Unless you live off the grid, grow your own food, build your own shelter, etc.—more power to self-sustaining individuals!—buying things is an inevitable fact of your existence.
If we have to be consumers, why not buy from companies who genuinely care about making the world a better place? Why not boycott companies who engage in unethical practices? When you look at it as if you’re fighting an insurmountable beast, it seems like a futile, unwinnable undertaking, but the fact is, every single bit counts. Taking on that perspective is critical in being a conscious individual, not just a conscious consumer.
For inspiration from nation-wide movements, you can look at countries like The Gambia, Morocco, Costa Rica, and India, which are making great strides in reaching goals against fighting climate change.
So much can be done: We can take institutional actions such as supporting our governments in investing in renewable energy; group action donating time and money to organizations fighting for the rights of marginalized groups; community action encouraging our friends, family, and colleagues to go green; and, as you know, individual action, including using our dollar as conscious consumers.
Is it easy? Not by a long shot. Is it worth it? Hell yeah.
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Jennifer is a writer that believes in lifelong learning through self-education. When she’s not writing, you can find her burying herself in books, dancing, training Muay Thai, exploring the world and reversing her habit of saying “like” as slang. She also finds it bizarre to speak about herself in the third person so this is where she’ll end the bio.
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