5 Ways You Can Change the World through Conscious Consumption
What does it mean to be a "conscious consumer"? How do our decisions as shoppers affect the world around us?
Let's start with a simple truth: the modern world represents the logical outcome of our current set of policies. Where our clothes are manufactured, where are electronics are assembled, and where our coconut oil is sourced all came about through a system of consumption that we have each subscribed to - and the result isn't always pretty. Children inhale lead and cadmium while sorting electronics in Agbogbloshie, a dilapidated suburb of Accra, Ghana known as a "global graveyard" for e-waste; Americans waste some 33 million tons of food while so many go hungry; and the vast majority of shoppers find themselves content (or unbeknownst) to the fact that genetically engineered foods have already steadily marched into our food supply.
But there is good news. As more people become aware of the ecosystem we've created (and are a part of), the cultural push toward a new system takes deeper root. Now, brands market their efforts for sustainability, fair trade, and zero-waste operations. We have organic, non-GMO, and fair trade certifications to look toward for direction. All in all, we see a growing attraction to the collective interest model, measured by our individual slow but steady transitions into more "conscious consuming."
No matter what "stage" you are at in your transition, here are 5 simple steps to help you stride further on your path.
1. Set a Goal
The first step to any good plan is setting a goal. We each come from unique backgrounds, cultures, and differing nodes-of-knowing. Take time to assess your situation and buying habits. Try to put a finger on the most wasteful practices in your home. Likewise, identify the practices that are hardest to give up - you'll need to spend extra energy on those later.
With a strong understanding of where you're starting, choose a destination. My personal goals include cutting out food waste completely and composting as much as possible. Maybe yours is recycling. Maybe driving less, or not at all.
2. Start a Moral Boycott
Now that you've determined what to do, it's time to decide what not to do. Think sugary cereals, unsustainably harvested salmon, monocropped GMO corn and soy. Your dollar either supports these practices or doesn't - it's your choice. To me, sometimes it isn't enough to 'feel good' about the benefits of organic or beyond organic farming. I've got to understand the negatives behind any "alternative" option.
Think about your morals. What defines you? How do you represent this in your shopping?
3. Cap Your Waste Stream
At the core of being a conscious consumer is understanding the afterlife of your products. Where does it all go? Thinking about your waste stream will likely wrap around with your main goal mentioned earlier. Why? Because tackling your waste is at the heart of lightening your tread on the planet.
- Consider daily waste: Are you using reusable bags, utensils, or plates for lunch? How about using your own mug for the morning coffee? All these tiny things will add up in the grand scheme of things. Just consider getting coffee, say, 3 days out of the week. Multiply that by 48 working weeks - that's a lot of cups going to the landfill (144 to be exact).
- Consider your home's waste: This isn't just food. Think energy, water, natural gas (if used). Your home is often one of the biggest contributors of your footprint.
- Consider the luxuries: Everyone loves to get that extra something. Maybe a new sweater or pair of pants. Maybe some nice new leather shoes. Maybe an iPad. Just ask yourself - where are those old shoes going?
A key element to keep in mind is engagement. Without participation from those in your home (or business), effective waste management becomes downright impossible.
4. Shop Local and Go Beyond Organic - Grow Your Own
Among the favorites of conscious consumption, shopping "local" and "organic" are at the top of the list. Problem is, both of these can be a bit confusing. Local, to some, can mean as far as 400 miles. Organic may actually include additives that just aren't organic, take synthetic inositol for instance.
What does this mean for the conscious consumer? It means you've got to take a more vested interest in your shopping. One simple way to do this and avoid reading labels is to just grow your own. Indoor herb gardens are simple enough, and moving this to the outdoors isn't much harder.
If you're not a gardener, head to your local co-op or farmers market for better options. Engage in conversations with your growers and find out where your food is coming from. It ends up in your stomach, after all.
5. Encourage Collective Action
Most importantly, take time to encourage others - and not just when it comes to shopping.
Stacy Mitchell, a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), argues that we can’t just make better shopping decisions and expect the world to change, but we must also couple this with collective power exercised as citizens. We must demand that the change and progress we exhibit as consumers is reflected in the policies and practices of government. (See her full TEDx Talk below).
While I personally carry a more optimistic outlook for the way shopping can shape the world, there is a certain cadence to Mitchell's point that cannot be ignored: as she puts it, the millions of shopping decisions we make as consumers is not unlike trout swimming upstream, against a current built by policies and practices that force a current in one direction.