Conscious Consumerism won’t save the world — not alone

A while back, a post entitled “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world,” was circulating the internet, catching the attention of some friends and colleagues.

Naturally, as someone who touts “conscious consumption” or “responsible consumption” (so actively that I started to build the MUNI community around the idea), I was tagged by several friends who shared the post, curious as to what I had to say, given that it challenged a cause that I championed (and simultaneously challenged as well) since 2012.

The article touches on these salient points:

  1. Consumption as the back bone of American (and global) economy “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,” said professor Halina Szejnwald Brown, professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University. “The whole marketing industry and advertising invents new needs we didn’t know we had.”

  2. On shunning social mores “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 go dumpster-diving and return every gift that doesn’t adhere to your high standards, demand that only raw, vegan, organic food at social gatherings, but at the risk of “becoming an insufferable human being”. (Much lolz.)

  3. Where to put our money 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.

The author, Alden Wicker, goes on to suggest the following small tweaks in our mentality to make a bigger difference:

  1. Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.

  2. 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).

  3. Instead of buying a $200 air purifier, donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air and water clean.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.” LOL

While I agree with a lot of the points the author made, thinking objectively, I still believe that generating awareness in conscious or responsible consumption is an important step in that mindset shift towards creating a healthier, more sustainable world.

I believe that a reduction in waste creation, multiplied the world over will make a huge difference. And I also believe that just changing buying behavior to greener options will not make an impact if we continue to consume at the same pace.

How can we endeavor to change an institution, a nation, the world, if we cannot change ourselves? People don’t become concerned with sustainability overnight. People started conversations on it since Silent Spring came out in the 60’s, but it’s only in the recent, what, 2-5 years that people have started to really pay attention. And we haven’t even gotten a majority of people’s mindsets changed yet.

In one of those spirited Facebook exchanges I had when the article came out, Pocholo Espina of Sip said, “It doesn’t account for the collective action of people and the possible attitude change it triggers with more people around the person, and from here taking action, on multiple fronts including legislation.”

This Changes Everything

Mid-2015, I had a slump after half-reading Naomi Campbell’s This Changes Everything, which made me feel that indeed, we don’t do enough by just changing our purchase patterns. It made me think, how useful is the work I do? Am I just deluding myself with self-importance over something that has little impact?

I agree too that conscious, sustainable consumerism has insofar been an elitist idea, not really accessible to a greater mass population (that may be more inclined to choose cheaper, shorter-lasting items wrapped in single-serving packaging, because that’s the more economical choice and what is available to them).

But being conscious about our choices is a start. It’s not enough, but I’m hopeful that it’s enough to at least get people started on thinking about how else they can get involved, or what else they can do to more actively change the world for the better, while still not necessarily having to give up their jobs to set up an NGO and start a mass protest (not unless more diplomatic means fail).

While the events that MUNIs put together reach mostly entrepreneurs and creatives, we also try to involve and engage people from government, NGOs and big corp, as I recognize that to truly effect change is to get involved with local government, and reach big corporations with problematic practices and help them change that vs. just flat out boycotting/shunning/shaming them.

The motivation behind the MUNI Market was never to push more needless consumption, but to create an avenue for learning and idea exchange among entrepreneurs and consumers, which would happen within the MUNI Meetups, on-stage interviews and demos that would take place during the event.

Suffice it to say, the kind of change we seek to create does not require more shoppiiiiing (imagine saying that in a White Chicks kind of way), but more of a reconsideration of how we consume, what we consume, what we can do to make a bigger and bigger difference, and (take a deep breath for this one) how to not be bogged down by not wanting to make small tweaks in our lifestyle at all because we don’t think it serves anyone or won’t make a dent.

Each action we successfully take is a trigger to start another one. So wherever you are in your sustainability journey, take a step forward. Let’s meet along the way.

Related Reads: 

  1. MUNI Market 2017: Beyond Conscious Consumerism

  2. MUNI Meetup: Zero Waste Ways at Home and in Travel on Sept. 30 at Batala Bar

  3. The Cost of Convenience vs. Zero Waste Living

  4. Why Fight A Losing Battle: A Conversation with Gela Petines of Reef Nomads

  5. The Psychology of Creating A Waste-Free World

  6. How To Create a Waste-free Travel Experience

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