“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.” — Economist Victor Lebow, 1955
Now, more than six decades since our White House Economic Chairman declared the economy’s ultimate purpose was “to produce more consumer goods,” the impacts of all that consumption are piling up. Between carbon emissions melting ice caps, obesity and prescription opioid epidemics, resource extraction decimating natural areas, the privatization of water by bottling it, and toxic chemicals contaminating human breastmilk, we’re surrounded by evidence showing how this purpose has failed us, and why it may be time to find a new one.
But what can we do?
Thinking critically about that question may be the first step.
“The idea behind ethical consumerism is that corporations will eventually adopt more sustainable practices, and the world’s most pressing issues can be solved, if and when consumers make more ethical choices,” explains Markus Giesler, a consumer sociologist and associate marketing professor at York University, whose work suggests all markets hinge on the very human conflict between our desire to profit and desire to share.
“That’s why we frequently stand in front of the supermarket shelf and feel so globally connected and ripe with significance as we ponder about the implications of our purchase decision for all these other actors – the coffee farmers of Peru, the factory worker of Bangladesh, or the butterflies of the Amazon.”
While business dictionaries narrowly define “active customers” by how often they buy their products, in a broader psychological context, being active means being presently aware of yourself, your surroundings and, by extension, your own power to influence them. An active consumer expends more conscious mental energy on how they spend their time and money, considering impacts on the economy at large and not just their own bottom line.
“As consumers in the U.S., we’re trained to look at all our purchases through the lens of quality and price,” says Todd Larsen, executive co-director at Green America, a nonprofit devoted to harnessing economic power toward a more sustainable society. “If that’s the only way you’re looking at it, you’re forgetting what the ultimate impact is on other people, the environment, or your own health, which are considered externalities in market economics. But we’re all living these market externalities.”
The overwhelming number of products and ethical considerations for each purchase can numb even the best-intentioned shoppers into passivity, buying whichever products are most readily available, retreating into media echo chambers, and rarely exercising economic power in a considered way. A lack of supply-chain transparency and “greenwashing” PR tactics to make products appear more sustainable than they really are turns ethical consumption into a full-time job that most people have neither the skills nor time to navigate.
In addition to changing their spending habits, Green America empowers people to make a difference by speaking out to companies directly through email, phone calls or shareholder meetings, influencing them to meet the sustainability standards of competitors.
“People have more power than they think they do,” says Larsen, “they just need to know how to use it and do it in a way that helps bring other people on board.”
There are many ways consumers have started exercising their power more actively, from boycotts of Fox News advertisers and detention center contractors to positive movements for voluntary simplicity and community-supported agriculture. Another digital age advent is the concept of “creative consumers,” active by definition, who subvert the linear economic models of old by upcycling and creating new value from products that would otherwise add to our overloaded disposal streams. Since learning is “an act of creation, not consumption of information,” these consumers facilitate a deeper social understanding of products, companies and ideas that can lead towards the broad systemic changes and circular economies we need for long-term sustainability.
At the same time, we can’t solve all the world’s problems through consumption, or “buying our way to a greener future.” Making ethical consumption choices isn’t feasible in some areas or on some budgets, nor is there always a meaningful difference between the most and least sustainable options in certain industries.
“Since the early 1990s, corporations and governments have spent billions every year… to teach us that making a difference for the planet and its people is no longer about political organization and demanding binding legislation,” Giesler explains. “The onus of responsibility for reducing capitalism’s negative footprint shifts from the plate of institutions such as companies and governments onto ours.”
To be a mindful participant in our economy means thinking beyond this corporate-enabled narrative, using your voice, not just dollars and cents, to shift accountability for making ethical economic decisions away from individual consumers and back onto governmental regulators and producers themselves, where it belongs. Though it may be a valuable first step, being active consumers alone will never be enough – we need to become active citizens.
Tips for Becoming a More Active, Socially Responsible Consumer (quotes from Todd Larsen)
- Buy Less: “The first thing is to think through do you really even need this thing at all. Whether it’s a green or non-green version, is there a way to get around making a purchase, which saves you money as well? When you see something and think about buying it, don’t buy it in the moment, and see if in a few days you really still can even remember the thing you thought you needed.”
- Borrow More: “Buying used or borrowing is always better than buying new, like a tool from a neighbor you’re only going to use once.”
- Consider a Product’s Entire Supply Chain: “Think through where did it come from, under what conditions was it made, what were the environmental impacts of making it, is there a similar product out there with fewer impacts and risks you could switch to? It’s really getting people to reset the way they think about purchases.”
- Spread the Word: Active consumers are trendsetters, so their advocacy for or against certain products and companies can start a more influential movement when they speak up and educate others. “You can let other people know and bring them on board with buying green because people listen to other people, their peers.”
- Increase Civic Participation: Refining consumer choices can have some impact, but Green American promotes political activism as even more crucial to creating a more sustainable and socially responsible economy. For example, global spending on green cleaning products was projected to reach $9.32 billion in 2017, whereas a fraction of that could have been directed more productively towards lobbying to ban toxic chemicals or holding companies accountable for their environmental impacts.