So you want to be a more conscious consumer, but you’re overwhelmed by the options, the information, and the latest news on what's recyclable! Here are some practices and tools to help.
Where to focus your energy?
Staying conscious and aware requires a degree of energy. To avoid overwhelm, start by focusing on high-impact consumer categories, which:
1) Include goods that you purchase regularly
2) Use standard practices that have a negative impact on the planet, people, and other animals as the norm
3) Have less harmful alternatives available
What's interesting to you?
What consumer categories are YOU interested in? If you like fashion, dive deeper into fashion and learn about the most humane ways to express yourself. If you're big into cooking, lean into how you can have a positive impact with your food choices. Are you a tech wiz? Become a champion for making tech last! Sustainable change comes when we find ways to spend more energy with what we already like AND deepen our understanding of what brings us fulfillment.
We consume food regularly, and our standard systems of animal agriculture and food overproduction and disposal are HUGE contributors to emissions, land and water usage, rainforest and habitat depletion, and animal suffering (1). Solutions like going plant-based and reducing food waste are available.
The clothing industry accounts for 8-10% of human carbon emissions (2). The fast fashion industry contributes to resource depletion, textile waste, microplastic pollution, demand for cheap and forced labor, and—depending on the material—animal suffering. Solutions like buying less and shopping second-hand can be better for your bottom line, too.
Electronics & Appliances
Electronics are quickly becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world (3). Their production raises demand for unfair and volatile mineral mining practices and their disposal leaks toxic substances. Alternatives in this fast-moving market are a bit trickier, but we can support refurbishing companies and bills that target planned obsolescence, which both reduce new production.
Household & Beauty
Household cleaners and personal hygiene products are often packaged in single-use plastics and loaded with chemicals that can be harmful to humans and the ecosystem. More companies are shifting from animal testing thanks to consumer demand, but it's not yet obsolete. Solutions in this space are available (and super trendy, so wash out for greenwashing as you embark!).
Habits don’t always change in the check-out line simply because you’ve learned a new piece of information. Lasting change happens from an understanding deeper in the mind and body. An article in the Journal of Marketing offers a framework of five psychological factors that can S.H.I.F.T. consumers toward making eco-friendly purchases (11). The article was written for marketers, but what if we use these factors to encourage ourselves to make consumer choices that align with our values?
Social influence: What social inputs influence you as a consumer?
Habit formation: What consumer habits would you like to form or deepen?
Individual self: Which values do you most want to embody in your consumer choices?
Feelings & cognition: How do you want your purchases to make you feel?
Tangibility: How can you be more connected to the impact of your purchases?
Conscious consumerism looks different for us all
We all enter the conscious consumer process from different places, with differing impacts. We also have different solutions available to us, depending on economic status, family, health, location, access, privilege, etc.
Conscious consumers share a mindset of thinking about why and what we purchase, and then that mindset manifests in different ways through each of our life lenses. We have to extend grace to ourselves when the available solutions aren’t perfect. We have to extend grace to others. That’s the only way this work becomes collective and sustainable.
Leverage points for change
Changing personal habits can feel like a small solution to a big problem. Still, these habits influence demand, inspire others, and allow us to act in accordance with our values and alleviate cognitive dissonance. However, sometimes changing a personal habit is not the best or most available leverage point.
This is where we can look for consumer leverage points outside of our daily habits and partake in collective solutions like emailing companies, boycotting, supporting effective change organizations, educating friends, and voting on policy.
In the works on Conscious Consumer: resources to help us get involved in collective action!
Sources and inspirations
(1) "A Brief History of Consumer Culture," MIT Press, https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-brief-history-of-consumer-culture, Published 11 Jan. 2021. (2) "A New American Consumer Culture," OER Services, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory2os2xmaster/chapter/a-new-american-consumer-culture (3) "The Moving Assembly Line and the Five-Dollar Work Day," Ford, https://corporate.ford.com/articles/history/moving-assembly-line.html, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022. (4) "When Did Factory Farming Start and Why Does It Still Exist?," Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, https://ffacoalition.org/articles/when-did-factory-farming-start-and-why-does-it-still-exist/ (5)"The Way We Won: America's Economic Breakthrough During World War II," The American Prospect, https://prospect.org/health/way-won-america-s-economic-breakthrough-world-war-ii/, Published December 19, 2001 (6) "National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling." EPA, https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#Generation, Last Updated 29 Jun. 2022. (7) "Past Earth Overshoot Days," Earth Overshoot Day. https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/past-earth-overshoot-days/, Published 2022 (8) "Report to the Congress on Practices of the Consumer Credit Industry in Soliciting and Extending Credit and their Effects on Consumer Debt and Insolvency." Federal Reserve, https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/rptcongress/bankruptcy/bankruptcybillstudy200606.pdf, Published Jun. 2006 (9) "U.S. Environmental Footprint Factsheet" Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, https://css.umich.edu/publications/factsheets/sustainability-indicators/us-environmental-footprint-factsheet#:~:text=In%201900%2C%20raw%20material%20consumption,2%20metric%20tons%20per%20person, Updated 2022 (10)"3.1 Factors That Influence Consumers' Buying Behavior." Principles of Marketing by University of Minnesota, https://open.lib.umn.edu/principlesmarketing/chapter/3-1-factors-that-influence-consumers-buying-behavior/, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022. (11)"How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework." Katherine White, Rishad Habib, David J. Hardisty, SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022242919825649, Published 14 Feb. 2019.