con·scious con·sum·er·ism

published April 8, 2019

by Emma Smith

/ˈkän(t)SHəs kənˈso͞oməˌrizəm/

Known as “voting with your dollar.” Style of consumerism in which consumers purchase products or services produced with consideration of social and environmental impact.

Conscious consumerism gets a really bad rep. It’s been called elitist, vague, and even a lie. And to be honest, it has the potential to be all those things. An ethically made top from the carbon neutral company Reformation averages $78. And how do you even tell if the company is doing what it says it does? Is it just greenwashing and capitalizing on the fact that being “eco-friendly” is trending? As for whether or not it’s a lie. . . it’s true that an individual consumer can’t shift multibillion dollar markets.

Yet all of these issues with conscious consumerism can’t undermine one simple fact: the sentiment is nice. Why shouldn’t we aim to give our money to companies that aren’t endangering their workers or the environment?

We live in a predominantly consumerist world. While the quality or necessity of the product may be up for debate, it’s easy to buy something in most places of the world, whether it’s a $1 plastic bottle of water or a $30 shirt from Zara. Our current system has been built to cater to the consumerwho has been trained to demand the latest trends, newest tech, and easily accessible food and drink, all at the lowest price possible, without really concerning themselves over how that low price was obtained. “Expiration” dates are built into nearly everything we own to ensure a steady stream of purchasing. Ten dollar shirts from H&M fall apart within a year so that you have to go and buy another ten dollar shirt. It’s simple and it’s smart business. Overall, it’s a fast, furious, and wasteful industry. Over 15 million tons of textile waste are generated in the United States each year.

It might sound existentialist, but what’s the point of limiting ourselves to only ethical, conscious companies when we’re just one consumer in a billion? Malcom Gladwell, New York Times staff writer and dedicated social psychology researcher, provides his reasoning for the importance of individual responsibility through what he calls "the tipping point." Essentially the logic goes something like this: If it takes 10,000 people to shift the market, your individual contribution may not shift anything, but there is a chance you will be the 10,000th person, thus prompting a shift. Perhaps you are the 9,999th, enabling the next person to become the 10,00th person or maybe you are the 9,998th . . . and so on. In isolation, a conscious consumer is a fish trying to swim upriver. That fact can feel incredibly disheartening until you remember the old school concept of “strength in numbers.”

Healthy food used to be virtually nonexistent in the food and restaurant market, relegated to a select few smoothie-loving hippies, a token side salad on a menu, and a box of cardboard-like Oat Bran amidst shelves stocked with Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes. But now there are entire food chains dedicated to custom salads and organic juices. Global health food sales are somewhere around $1 trillion. As more and more information came out showing the important role of food and lifestyle in health, the 10,000th consumer decided to demand salad over a piece of pizza and the market has shifted such that the food industry is seeing a rapid shift in what consumers want from their food. Even major names like Chick-Fil-A and McDonald’s are releasing healthier options and Wendy’s is advertising that their burgers are the superior choice because they are “100% pure beef.” This dramatic shift in what suppliers are offering consumers is a response to the radical shift in what many people are demanding.

Being a conscious consumer doesn’t have to be elitist or vague. So yes, while being a conscious consumer does in a sense mean voting with your dollar, the true goal is that how you spend your dollar encourages other people to spend their dollar differently . . . and then you might just be on to something.

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