A U.S. sustainability blogger is declaring the notion of “conscious consumerism” a lie, after concluding that even the most consistently devoted lifestyle changes won’t bring deep enough, fast enough systemic change to make a difference.
“According to the lore of conscious consumerism, every purchase you make is a ‘moral act’—an opportunity to ‘vote with your dollar’ for the world you want to see,” Alden Wicker wrote earlier this year on Quartz. “We are told that if we don’t like what a company is doing, we should stop buying their products and force them to change. We believe that if we give consumers transparency and information, they’ll make the right choice.”
But “making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want,” she said, even if those choices make consumers feel better about themselves. “The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late.”
Wicker noted that consumers can’t shift entrenched global supply chains or overloaded waste streams by “choosing fashion made from hemp, grilling the waiter about how your fish was caught, and researching whether your city can recycle bottle caps.” It takes a lot of privilege (and available time) to be able to make those choices, and they won’t dent the household consumption that drives 70% of the U.S. economy.
“I’m not saying that we should all give up, or that we should stop making the small, positive decisions we make every day as responsible humans,” she writes. “But when it comes to combatting climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, what we need to do is take the money, time, and effort we spend making these ultimately inconsequential choices and put it toward something that really matters.”
That means settling the bigger life and lifestyle decisions that shape our environmental and carbon footprints, then focusing on bigger, systemic changes rather than smaller, individual gestures. Wicker cites several examples: supporting organizations that fight agricultural run-off rather than paying more for organic sheets, volunteering to fight food deserts rather than driving to pick fruit at an organic orchard, donating to politicians who fight for clean air rather than buying an air purifier, or fighting for farm legislation that supports healthy eating rather than dining out at a farm-to-table restaurant.
“On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement,” she concludes. “But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true power brokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.”