Updated: Nov 14, 2021
The term is making the rounds as many people realise the power that lies in their wallet (or banking app), it refers to the awareness and engagement with the economy and how our consumption impacts society and the environment as a whole.
We're seeing it through the rise of minimalism, vegan diets and zero-waste lifestyles that advocate for the reduction of the consumption of items (and/or the amount of) that are wasteful or harmful to the environment. With this there comes the rhetoric to "be the change" which refers to the benefits of individual change on a collective level. This is of course completely understandable, when we see the scale of trauma and damage that we are currently looking at with the climate crisis we intuitively want to create large scale change. Conscious consumerism is a way in which we can actively participate within the current framework of society.
The concept of the conscious consumer and consumer activism dates back to the 1970s, but with consumerism's links to colonialism there were movements happening in industrialised countries like the UK and US from as early as the late 19th century. Advocating for consumer rights remains an important aspect of participating in the marketplace today, but consumers are beginning to transform their own definition by placing a large focus on making responsible purchase decisions.
So, how is it done?
The notion is for us, as consumers, to challenge the current status quo locally ~ within our own communities ~ by supporting small businesses who can provide services with less global impact. On top of that it advocates researching brands and businesses before we decide we either want to buy from, invest with or work for them. There is no set of rules but its mostly held that providing fair wages, having an ethical supply chain and a low environmental impact are some of the most important factors to consider. Its also about changing the way we think when we buy, and cultivating an alternative set of values, such as;
Distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary buys. When searching for everyday products, consider how they are made and their entire lifecycle impact (what will happen to it when you're finished with it?)
Choose to buy from companies that put planet and people first
Buy earth friendly products that are made with natural and sustainable materials, like bamboo, flax, linen
Swap out toiletries and cosmetics that use animal testing and plastic
Limit air travel to the essential
Consider going zero-waste, or as close to it as you can
Eliminate the use of single-use plastics and use reusable items instead
Reuse items and buy second-hand whenever you can
Repair broken goods rather than buying new
Recycle, dispose of old clothes responsibly, and compost food waste
Technology has had a huge impact on this rising movement, never before have consumers had access to so much information and the ability to research a company's ethos in a matter of minutes. Apps and browser extensions are increasingly available to us that make this even easier - two great ones are the Good On You website and app and the Neutral plugin
Does it make a difference?
As an individual, it can be hard to see the benefits of being a conscious consumer. What does buying organic carrots or boycotting a company for accepting money from deforestation-investors really do? But adding up each person’s actions equates to big changes in the grand scheme of things. Even before the pandemic hit back in 2019, 73% of global consumers said they would be willing to or wanted to make changes to their purchases and consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.
Consumer opinion and individual action trigger exponential change. The reality is that when individuals consume (or choose not to consume) with impact in mind, industries respond to meet those consumer demands, and this expands accessibility. With access to more information and more product choices, more people are given the opportunity to weigh in on the ethics and standards of our day to day consumption. These changes are apparent across the sectors, from companies releasing annual sustainability reports to investments in regenerative agriculture and food systems to renewable energy becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives.
What are the problems?
For all of the wonderful intentions and benefits of conscious consumerism, there are a few issues that need to be kept in mind
Accessibility. The fact of the matter is that many sustainable products are more expensive than their mass produced alternatives, and in some cases they can be considered luxury items. Needless to say, this leaves much of our population unable to participate. If a large portion of our community doesn’t have the option to vote with their purse for sustainability, they are left not only without their voices heard on the issues of corporate impact, but they're also left with little to no choice but to purchase the products and services that conscious consumers are speaking out against. Often, the communities most damaged by corporate irresponsibility are the exact communities who can’t opt for better-for-the-world alternatives due to cost constraints. This leads straight to --
Gentrification. Or 'whitewashing'. The visible image of sustainable living is increasingly white, middle class women who are very adept at the Instagram flat-lay but don't offer a real critique of the situation or on what else can be done (I'm talking influencer vibes - not activists and academics etc.). One big problem here is that the groups most at risk of climate change and exploitative corporations are Black, Asian and Indigenous peoples - particularly women and children. Unintentional as it may be, and as helpful as it strives to be, a more equal and inclusive approach is required. This is a major issue and creating accessibility to healthier, more ethical products must be universal because at the end of the day it’s not a preference, it’s a necessity— one of the defining features of ethical products is that they are good for humans and planet
Capitalism. This is a HUGE and layered topic, which we will pick apart bit by bit. But for now it should be mentioned that there is the argument that capitalism relies on ever-increasing consumption - and that a shift to consumer activism would yield stronger and faster results both ethically and environmentally. This means less worrying about where you're spending your money and more donating, activism, volunteering and getting involved in politics from the ground
It would be naive to say that buying things is going to save the planet; it won’t. However, unless you live off completely off of the 'grid' buying things is an inevitable fact of your existence, and resigning ourselves to inaction is not a wise move. Conscious consumerism remains a tool (not the only tool) for people to make an impact within the capitalist framework that we are currently refined to - and it provides livelihoods and services within that. The more consumers demand authentic 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. Sustainability should be the norm, and we are definitely making progress to that end, but there’s still a very long way to go.