Normally, the conscious lifestyle goes like this: we have our favorite treats and our cherished items, but it turns out these are produced exploitatively. So, we search for a greener alternative, and we end up buying the more expensive eco version of our beloved branded products. Oftentimes (that means, if we actually follow through on our decision at all), we find ourselves in the situation of having to spend more for something we sometimes like less.
Still, we start feeling accomplished because we did not just give in to our lowly cravings, but stretched for the sophisticated green alternative. We did great, we consciously did the right thing. A feel good moment included… But did we?
Why ‘green consumerism’ isn’t necessarily sustainable
Much of today’s eco-lifestyle falls into the category called ‘green consumerism’. This might be a more conscious choice—but it is still consumerism. It is basically a green-washed version, not a true game changer.
The good news is that consciously choosing the greener product does have the effect of challenging our consumerist culture. Profoundly. Buying a product not solely based on its price tag (i.e. choosing the best deal) but also on the conditions of its production is a huge deal—it challenges the normal workings of market economy.
The price tag doesn’t reflect the true costs
As economist E.F. Schumacher describes in his famous critique of capitalism, Small is Beautiful, economic decisions in the pure sense require the buyer to completely disregard how the marketed products are produced.
As buyers we are mere bargain hunters. In order get the most bang for our buck, we, the consumers, should not concern ourselves with whatever means were necessary in production.
However, it is dangerous to reduce our decisions and our social life to such superficial, one-dimensional, and simplistic deliberations.
And as green consumers we pledge to not play this game. Conscious consumerism can be seen as an attempt to de-economize the market by putting a new sense of responsibility into place. Taking responsibility for ethically or sustainably produced goods might present a way out of the pure bargain hunting mindset which comes with a complete disregard for unjust conditions of production
Are we really nothing more than bargain hunters?
In a way, this is an extension of what Schumacher describes as the overall exception that every buyer has to take responsibility for not buying stolen goods.
Still, we can’t shake of the feeling that there is something at odds with conscious consumerism.
‘Green consumerism’ can be very tiring
Yes, saying no to mass consumerism is a valuable statement. You basically say: I care about the environment and I do not want things to be produced in such a destructive way.
However, putting yourself in the position of having to make these kinds of conscious decision multiple times every day, again and again, takes a lot of effort. It eats up a lot of our mental capacities, and yet we still end up fueling consumerism.
So I want to question the framework in which we make our greener choices.
We need a mindset shift
The truth is that most of the time, swapping our favorite products for a ‘greener’ version doesn’t have that big of an impact, as we are basically keeping the same standard of consumption. Say you buy a coffee to go at a coffee shop every morning. You want to reduce your impact so you decide go to a greener coffee shop that sells Fairtrade organic coffee in supposedly compostable paper cups and lids made from bioplastics instead. You spend a lot more on your coffee, but you are only reduced your impact very slightly, because well, both the coffee and the to-go cups still eat up a huge amount of resources and create a lot of trash.
In a sense, you could even say that it adds to the problem unsustainable lifestyles create. By consciously spending more on the slightly greener version, sustainable minded people end up with less money available to support truly sustainable projects and to actually make a difference. But wasn’t making a difference exactly the point?!
Should I go for organic milk from the farmer I personally know with happy local cows or should I chose the non-organic imported almonds for my milk? Or is there an alternative that is not adding to the Californian drought? And after all, what are the long-term effects?
In my opinion, it is important to ask those kinds of questions and to get to know the workings of global network of our industries. But we cannot base our everyday life on first having to rationalize and understand how the world works and then be able to act better and more sustainable. No one has the time or mental capacities for that.
Let’s face it, we will never accumulate enough information about the production processes and we will never have enough knowledge to solidly chose one over the other. Conscious consumerism will always come short.
Sustainability is not about consciously making the right decision all the time
What if we look at this in a different way? What if our goal wasn’t to ‘make the right conscious decisions’? What if we set out to gradually find ways of integrating sustainable practices into everyday life and let those new practices eventually become habits?
Having more sustainable habits means we don’t have to constantly check labels, or look for which number of plastic the to-go cup lid is made of to know whether or not it’s recyclable before having to figure out how and where to recycle that number five plastic.
We could simply develop the habit of taking a stroll around the block instead of rushing to get our double shot espresso. (Definitely the most sustainable option by the way) Or we could make time and find pleasure drinking from a real cup while taking a breather.
The key is developing sustainable habits
Instead of exchanging traditional products for greener versions, changing our habits of consumption means real change. We need to reevaluate ourselves, our wants, and our needs. Instead of diverting to politicians and companies to come up with solutions, we take matters into our own hands.
Since our overboard consumption usually comes with a lot of trash, reducing our trash will reduce our consumption. And it will do so, first and foremost, where it adds the least value to our lives. The chocolate bar at the check-out, the rushed coffee to go, easily bought dollar store products, countless highly specialized beauty products in our bathroom cabinets.
By adopting zero waste habits and truly sustainable practices, we will reshape societal standards one day at a time. Maybe this way, we come closer to the true meaning of a sustainable life. A sustainable lifestyle does not mean you will have to deprive yourself or sacrifice your own wellbeing for the greater good, but developing the framework of living a life worth living in a world worth living in.
What do you think? Please let me know what your take on conscious consumerism is. Am I too pessimistic here? How do you prefer to change your habits? Going cold turkey or ease into it?