Your Myth-busting Guide to Conscious Consumerism
Whether you’re rolling in cash or your just taking home enough to pay the bills, you have spending power. Don’t want to purchase from companies that rely on sweatshops? Do the research to find alternatives online. The keyword here is research. Informed buyers have the power to sway businesses to improve their ethics. This is especially true if you use your influence strategically by persuading others to make the same swaps.
Tip: Scroll to the end of the article for some helpful research tools.
Beyond this, our purchases often become cultural identity markers. Vegans don’t often wear leather, for example. Sustainable coffee drinkers tote reusable cups. A company’s politics may even inform our decisions, too, as we saw when people boycotted Ivanka Trump’s clothing line after President Trump was elected in 2016. All of these deciding factors fall under the label of conscious consumerism.
If you align your spending with your beliefs, then you’re a conscious consumer. And you’re part of an increasing trend to combine activism with marketplace decisions. Whether you’re boycotting to avoid a brand or buycotting to give a brand the green light, your purchases have more influence today than ever before.
The rise of conscious consumerism
An important aspect of conscious consumerism is boycotting. One of the most prominent movements to boycott consumer goods for a political purpose emerged in Britain in 1959. This effort clearly focused on a specific political target--ending the racist Apartheid political system of South Africa--but the movement also inspired later grew into the and later became the Anti Apartheid Movement (AAM), which included economic sanctions and divestment.
The AAM is remembered as a success, and it inspired many later political divestment movements. Efforts to boycott the products and stocks of tobacco companies and their holdings, and recently to divest from fossil fuel companies, all drew inspiration from the AAM strategies.
However, conscious consumerism also implies a reduction of consumption on behalf of the Earth. In 1970, when Earth Day first began, the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” emerged as a catchall phrase encapsulating environmentally conscious waste reduction. Scholars of marketing were likewise theorizing the individual role of consumers on the environment around that time.
In 1974, George Fisk wrote his article, “Criteria for a Theory of Responsible Consumption,” which suggested that consumers should make decisions as informed marketplace actors. According to his theory, marketers also had the responsibility to encourage consumers to limit consumption to safeguard the environment from over-exploitation.
Finally, the 1990s saw a wave of consumer choice emerge as another part of the conscious consumerism equation. Products were marketed as “green” so that consumers could receive qualitative information that informed them about their purchases. With greener options, consumers could support sustainable companies through “buycotting.”
However, manufacturers’ claims could not always be verified, and many companies used marketing to “greenwash” their products with false sustainability claims. Official labeling systems emerged for some products. For instance, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established the first standards for organics. The USDA certified organic label did not get finalized until 2002.
These days, however, consumers are actively using all of these strategies and amplifying their findings online in social media. A Weber Schandwick and KRC Research survey of consumer activists found that 76 percent of respondents believed social media improves their impact.
Why some people thing conscious consumerism is a lie
Alden Wicker, sustainability lifestyle blogger and editor of Ecocult, wrote a piece titled “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world,” expressing concern that small actions do not lead to big changes. As a long-time supporter of ethical brands and conscious living, she claims that political action, not spending habits, makes all the difference.
However, her argument fails to recognize the level of influence conscious consumerism has already had on manufacturers. For instance, the Fairtrade International, USDA Organic and Rainforest Alliance labels have all helped raise standards for business with the help of conscious consumers using these labels to inform them.
It also seems counterintuitive to favor one political strategy over another. Alden Wicker’s own career as a sustainable shopping advocate supports a “both and” approach, not an “either or” approach. Researchers Margaret M. Willis and Juliet B. Schor have found a positive correlation between consumer activism with political activism in a survey of 2,200 conscious consumers. There is no reason we can’t view conscious consumerism as one tool among many in the toolbox for personal political influence.
When public figures walk their talk through personal consumer choices, it can be inspiring. Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg follows a no-fly principle when travelling to attend global conferences. This symbolic action to reduce her carbon footprint shows that she’s willing to use her influence as a public figure to spark change through consumer choices.
As they say, actions speak louder than words. And thanks to social media, all of our actions can attract attention from the broader public.
Essential tools to vote with your wallet
The vast information available online helps us to research the intricacies of manufacturer’s approaches to people, planet and profit. Here are a few tools to help you determine a company’s stance towards politics and sustainability.
Loop is a convenient online source for a wide-range of household products that come in refillable containers. If you’re tired of creating excess plastic waste, try Loop so you can return your containers to the manufacturer to be refilled using Loop’s convenient delivery and pick-up service.
B Corps are independently verified based on their social, environmental and economic performance. The vote everyday campaign encourages consumers to research and buy from B Corps.
The Grab Your Wallet campaign started in response to highlighting companies that supported the unethical policies of President Donald Trump, however, the campaign has expanded to highlight brands responses to other important political issues in the media.
With the Buycott app, you can scan product barcodes to discover information about the brand’s ownership, politics and sustainability profile.
End Slavery Now has compiled a list of companies that do not rely on modern slavery in their supply chains.
The Carbon Disclosure Project A-List provides a list of companies that meet high standards related to climate change, deforestation and water security, to help you support corporate environmental leaders.
What else can we do to inspire political change?
In addition to conscious consumerism, we can all amplify our political views through:
- Amplifying conscious actions with social media
- Divesting from unethical corporations and their holdings
- Voting for well-researched candidates
- Participating in local political meetings and lobbying for change
- Grassroots organization and advocacy
- Volunteering for change-making organizations
- Donating to causes
- Running for office
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Still waiting for that coffee cup ban? Stop waiting now. Be the change you want to see in the world.