Overconsumption has led the world down a destructive path. We're living in a system where people consume more than they need and the planet can't cope. Every item ever made has a far greater story behind them than purely what we see, from extraction to production, labour to transportation. Our society of mass production and overconsumption not only destroys the planet's natural resources, emits carbon emissions and exploits workers, but it actually doesn't make us happy (even though we're told it will). It traps us in a cycle of buying and wasting and never feeling fully satisfied.
It all sounds pretty doom and gloom, huh?
So how should we navigate our consumerist world? Is there such a thing as conscious consumerism - a type of consuming that doesn't harm the planet or people? Or is the very nature of consumerism damaging? Let's take a look.
What is conscious consumerism?
Conscious consumerism is described as a "moral act" cast with every dollar you spend in this piece written by a former sustainable lifestyle blogger. It's where every individual "votes with their dollar" for the kind of world they want to see. Long story short, it means buying products, food and things that are made in a way that aligns with your values. It also extends to the marketplaces you use to buy your products, so perhaps this translates to avoiding buying through companies like Amazon, who notoriously mistreat their workers.
Can consuming ever be ethical?
Many of us choose to spend our money on sustainable, ethical, reusable and recyclable items that align with our values. However, it's important to note that often these products come with a higher price tag because they haven't been made cheap and fast, which means they don't cut corners and they pay their workers properly. But this also means it's not accessible for everyone because they are more expensive and not widely distributed. Meaning that most of the time, conscious consumerism itself is often only available to the very people who contribute the most to climate change.
The wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world's top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. And, the conscious decisions made by people in the wealthiest bracket aren't necessarily as robust as we would hope. According to Fast Company, those who did do their homework about the products they were buying were often relying on product packaging to evaluate a company, which can be dangerous when greenwashing is commonplace and it can be hard to decipher how sustainable a brand is on visuals alone. (To get a better understanding we can look up directories like Good on You and Shop Ethical)
The bottom 50% of income earners are often left with little choice but to purchase the products they can afford, which are the ones that may not align with their ethical values. They are locked out of being conscious consumers because of a price tag.
It's no secret that it's better to buy sustainable products than spending our money on cheap, plastic items made in sweatshops with poor conditions, but in the end, it's still consumerism. And consumerism often benefits the rich and drives environmental degradation, and has a heavier impact on people in the Global South who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.
So, although consumerism can be somewhat ethical, it's important to acknowledge the inequalities within our current economic systems and the pressure to consume more and more. We should also make sure we take the time to dig deeper when we can and not just assume social and environmental impacts disappear because a company claims to use sustainable materials and ethical production processes. We also need to fight for accessibility so that everyone can live their values.
It's not just a trend, it's a lifestyle
It's important to not get wrapped up in the "trend" of conscious consumerism. This means not falling for greenwashing but also not expecting that just because you bought the more "eco-friendly" option, that means the item is suddenly absolved of any environmental harm. This is not the case as everything has its impacts. These impacts could include using raw materials, worldwide transportation, mass production, unethical labour conditions and then where the item will end up after it is used.
We at 1 Million Women support eco-friendly and ethical brands (and think they play an important role in moving the needle and changing the systems they operate in) but we have to remember that it's always better to not buy anything where you can. Using what you already have, repurposing items or swapping with friends should be the first point of call.
If you really need a product, always look for the most sustainable, eco-friendly and ethical option, but after you've bought it, you don't need another and another. For example, if you have one reusable coffee cup, you don't need seven from different brands or if you have one menstrual cup, you don't need multiple in different colours. It's about buying less and only buying what you need.
Don't rely on Instagram for product endorsements.
Moving away from overconsumption is often made harder by platforms such as Instagram which can perpetuate the desire to 'keep up' with current trends and thoughtless spending. In the last few years there has been a significant rise in 'eco-influencers', personalities on Instagram who have amassed a huge following by documenting an eco-friendly lifestyle. Some fear this just well publicised greenwashing, but it's not always the case. There are also genuine organisations and people out there, helping us to live light on the planet and be informed about our consumer choices and these popular accounts help bring sustainability into mainstream conversations.
The negative effects of some of the 'eco-influencers' however are that it can still leave us with the feeling that we should buy into their lifestyle. A photo of someone walking the streets of London sporting an organic cotton tote-bag and second-hand blazer may still be a better alternative to the ASOS sponsored jet setting influencers of before. But it is still instilling the idea that we should spend to fit in with this trend.
It's not an easy task, and going to the beach in an H&M bikini from 3 seasons ago may not feel good next to those in a naturally dyed bikini made upcycled from fishing nets, but is an important way to ensure that the clothes or goods you own are used to their full lifestyle. We can't go back and undo an unsustainable purchase, but we can ensure they are done justice by being used to their full lifespan.
So, what can you do?
It's simple, really. Buy what you need and nothing more.
But also, make sure that you're also making the changes in other parts of your life. We need to make sure we're not ticking off the list of reusable items that influencers have told us we need and then forgetting about cutting down our household electricity, eating less red-meat or getting on the bus instead of driving. All these things are important if we want to make an impact.
Make sure when you use your money to vote for the world you want, you also use your vote. This means voting for the representatives that are fighting for a better world and supporting policies that protect our environment.