Sustainable living is more than just conscious consumerism

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

“A sustainable world is a place where there is no poverty or hunger, and everyone has equal access to clean water, education, health care, and the opportunity to pursue satisfying work with fair compensation. Energy is clean, communities husband their resources carefully, and consumption is responsible. Conservation dictates both land and water use, and everyone is committed to fighting climate change.”UNICEF USA


Over the past decade, the rise of sustainable living has grown from a small grassroots movement to a mainstream lifestyle choice, complete with big brands and their paid minor celebrity ambassadors telling us how they are making an impact. The world has changed, somewhat; plastic straws are socially taboo, electric car chargers populate affluent areas of cities and the reusable shopping tote is a daily essential (with matching face mask of course).

Mindful shopping (or conscious consumerism) is a valuable way to vote for change and a brilliant place to start when it comes to reducing personal impact. And once you do start looking into ways to shop differently you might, like me, start to notice that your Instagram feed is filled with advertising for sustainable socially responsible small businesses and artisans that give back to global causes (yep, just like my Bohème Curation!). But its also Facebook, Tik Tok and Pinterest et al. Search for anything relating to sustainability and it seems like someone is trying to sell you something. This proliferation of conscious consumer aimed businesses and online marketplaces that are driving a once-niche industry is in fact exactly what we want and to a certain extent need. We should have more brands that support equality, pay living wages to global artisans, operate transparently and use traceable, nontoxic supply chains - absolute no brainer! The question is though;

When did the conversation around sustainable living become just about... shopping?

As we set about trying to figure out which brands are greenwashing us and focusing on changing the way we shop, we lose focus on the core of the problem: society's perspective of global consumption and the structures of the corporations that sell to us. The content aimed at sustainable living largely seems to say 'don't buy this, buy that!', at a time when social media platforms are becoming centred around marketplaces. I personally struggle with this as a seller of vintage & secondhand goods, I want to offer an alternative to fast fashion, and reduce clothing wastage etc. but I also don't want to contribute to the idea that overconsumption is okay if its a more sustainable version. We do need to buy certain goods, businesses need to sell them, this is true - it just shouldn't be the sole focus of sustainable living, it is in fact a very small part of it.

I have talked previously about the restrictions of conscious consumerism that are imposed upon parts of the population with lower incomes, and the problem is that sustainable living has become so focused on what we buy that its becoming increasingly more exclusive rather than less, even as we see sustainable businesses thrive. This doesn't mean that ethical and sustainable products should be cheaper - they should cost more: they're honouring craft, maker and environment - but it does mean that sustainability needs to encompass more than our spending habits. It is about our actions not our purchases.

So, what happened?

The message has been overly simplified, leaving the door wide open for the likes of Primark to greenwash accessibility. The ridiculous claim of affordable-sustainable alternatives from one of the leading overproducers of fast fashion caused understandable outrage in the sustainability sector, but its not surprising - some big brand was always going to come along with that faux promise and pay to put in the mouth of an influencer.

The hard truth is that it can't be affordable for the majority of people, the current systems in place dictate that increasing quantity decreases prices = overproduction = not sustainable. It's similar to the situations we face in other areas of living sustainably, like it can be incredibly difficult to become/stay 100% zero waste or 100% vegan, society in its current state is just not set up for it.

Approaches to sustainable living need to remain focused on changing systems and protecting marginalised communities, moving away from looking to brands and products that offer the 'swap' or solution. For conscious consumerism to actually be effective it must operate in tandem with a social justice framework which dives deep into hard issues and ultimately holds society at large accountable for our collective actions - for sustainability to truly be accessible we need social change.

The sustainability movement is full of innovative leaders and change makers as well as people trying to find a way to incorporate it into their daily lives and we need to be challenging ourselves and each other to keep it moving. It is critical to not allow the movement to be swallowed by the system(s) it is trying to change. We need to reduce consumption, not just redirect it. And more than just being mindful of how and where we spend our money, we have to do the same with our time and effort - to live sustainably we need to be consistently questioning, learning and adapting. We cannot shop our way to a better future for people and planet, but collectively we can resist falling into consumerist traps set by corporate greenwashers and social media conglomerates. I shall cheesily conclude with a perhaps overused, but nonetheless apt quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead;

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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