Looking at the bigger picture, it can feel like there’s no solution and we, along with the earth, could dissolve like marshmallows on fire. But there’s something called compound interest, aka conscious consumerism, which can help to heal our planet, our people, and us.
Consumerism is a word whispered in social media hallways in response to mass holiday sales, long shopping queues and Netflix documentaries on the pitfalls of Western societies. Consumerists are often pictured as materialistic, self indulgent individuals obsessed with the latest fashion, technology trends, cultural fads and anything that keeps them up with the Joneses. However, it’s easy to classify other people as consumerists and make it an “us” vs “them” mentality – in fact, we are all consumerists.
This isn’t to make us or others feel guilty or ashamed but rather to bring an awareness to our purchases, how they affect the earth, others and ourselves, and how consumerism can also be used for the greater good. This awareness is called ‘conscious consumerism’, the kind of consumerism where we become intentional about what we buy, and make choices dependent on whether they make a positive contribution and investment to environmental sustainability, ethical labour (Fair Trade) and our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Consumerism doesn’t only mean the excessive purchase of goods and services, but it also means the protection and promotion of consumer interests (which we can say is fairly ironic). With the internet and social media expansion, we’ve seen consumerism largely enhance industrial and economic growth but also increase internal crises like anxiety, comparison, falsehood of wealth and even depression, as purchases are used as emotional void fillers. On an external impact, consumerism has deepened the realities of environmental pollution, modern day slavery and child labour, as the demand for many of these goods exceeds the supply.
This is where companies and manufacturers cut corners and invest in cheap labour and environmentally-compromising processes, which affects the planet and continues to exploit the rights and livelihoods of people for profit. The problem doesn’t rest with manufacturers alone, but also with governments that seek economic foreign investments and establish poor labour regulations that attract these companies.
Beyond the fashion industry, we’ve also seen images of birds and sea animals trapped in plastic items, or landfills with plastic and electronic waste, and we might have heard about how overgrazing decreases biodiversity and how climate change is linked to floods, food shortages and heat waves. This is where we need to decide on how we can partner with brands and businesses through our lifestyle choices and purchases to bring about the greater good.
We can only absorb so much information and while it’s okay to keep learning, we do have to participate in one way or the other. We have to remember that the planet is our home, we are linked to the people who make our products even though they seem far away. It seems impossible, but in truth we are intertwined and connected with the earth but also with each other. Our words and actions, big or small, personal or communal, have the power to positively and negatively affect others.
In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown defines this as spirituality which she says is “recognising and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion”. If we’re looking for a reason or want motivation for why we should care about the people who make our clothes and products, harvest our food and even attend to our whims on holidays, then it can be partially found in this quote.
Looking at the bigger picture, it can feel like there’s no solution and we, along with the earth, could dissolve like marshmallows on fire. But there’s something called compound interest, aka conscious consumerism, which can help to heal our planet, our people and us. It’s a worthy battle and can feel hard, even difficult to do, but to become conscious consumers we have to start with what we value and believe in.
It’s in the questions and short reflections where we make space for ourselves and identify why and how we want to begin this global but individual journey. It doesn’t have to be in the loud dramatic and most visible ways like becoming a vegan minimalist activist on day one and lobbying outside government gates. This isn’t a bad thing to do, in fact we can all participate in different forms of activism, but like most things that start with a big bang, it can be hard to follow through. Conscious consumerism is something we grow into, so starting right, small and intentional is a good way to go.
Let’s think of it as a relay race where we all receive and pass the baton on to each other for as long as we live. We can pass it on to a child, a parent (because it’s never too late), a friend, the countless strangers we pass by digitally and in real life. We can start by thinking of the meaningful ways to become a conscious consumer. This could look like examining our current items and repurposing the things we don’t want to avoid waste by swapping items with friends, selling to thrift shops or gifting to charity.
Another way could be through researching and financially partnering with food and clothing brands and businesses that reflect these conscious values and ethics. Things to look out for would be where the food is sourced from, if it was sourced ethically and if the company is conscious about sustainability. It could also be the Fair Trade logo on the packet, or an origin story that tells you a bit more about the person who made the food item.
In the fashion industry, most small to medium sized brands, including some commercial fashion brands, are now making an effort to have a conscious impact on the environment and employees. These brands make clothing from eco-friendly and sustainable materials, like organic cotton, hemp and linen to fabrics made from plastic waste and recycled clothes.
Being conscious consumers is a worthy journey where we can take part in the battle against pollution, waste and exploitation. Are we ready to begin?