Conscious Consumerism 101
by Wesley Wright, MASc
Conscious consumerism is a term that is open to many different interpretations. Too often, the emphasis is placed on the consumerism aspect of it, and that can result in confusion when it comes to being an agent of change in this world.
I believe that a conscious consumer is someone who cares about making a positive impact on the planet (be it social, environmental, and/or political) and who thinks critically about the implications of the actions (s)he takes (or doesn’t take). Here, the conscious aspect is emphasized over the consumer.
That said, in this day and age where we are often over-worked, exhausted, bombarded with advertisements telling us we need the latest model of item X to be happy, and amidst cultural mores that pressure us to keep up with the Joneses, it is difficult to have the time and energy to truly educate ourselves about which products are the best ones to get within a given category, and what actions to take to help make a difference. We have therefore outlined a few suggestions to help take the guesswork out of it:
- Shop the periphery of the grocery store: generally, the most wholesome foods are found here, whilst the most processed foods are found in the inner aisles and by the cashiers. Whole, unprocessed foods don’t come with nutrition labels and are generally healthier for you. Choose local and organic where possible.
- Don’t confuse wants with needs: when you reach for an item (or are looking at it in your online shopping cart), ask yourself if you really need it. My wife and I try to implement the “need it/screaming yes” criterion: If it’s truly needed, then of course purchase it. If it’s not essential, then go ahead and buy it if it is truly a “screaming yes.” You need not apologize if something makes you happy to own and that you will actually use (and meets any other criteria that you might have re packaging, durability, sourcing, etc.).
- Avoid unsustainably grown palm oil wherever possible: as a result of its low cost, palm oil has become ubiquitous in our products—toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, and nearly half of all packaged foods sold in the US. Its demand has resulted in palm oil production being one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction. Alter Eco, a socially just and environmentally responsible public benefit company whose chocolate bars we buy almost exclusively, wrote a good snapshot about coconut vs. palm oil here.
- Minimize packaging: buy in bulk whenever you can. Generally, the larger the quantity, the less the (per item) packaging. Even better is to support a local bulk food or zero waste store if there is one near you. Many now allow you to bring in your own clean containers or bags to refill.
- The Three Rs (Reduce/Reuse/Recycle) are in order of impact: It might make us feel good to throw something into the recycle bin rather than the garbage bin, but doing so should be treated as the last resort. Reducing the waste we generate (by minimizing packaging, avoiding cheap/low-quality items that break down after a short time period, and simply choosing to not purchase an item) is most impactful. Reusing items (and opting for reusable over disposable), and extending their lifespan (by proper care, storage, repair) helps to delay their disposal and prevent the purchase of new, replacement goods. Recycling is only done after the item we’ve purchased has reached its end-of-life—after we’ve already done what we can to reduce waste and extend its life.
Many of us are disheartened by all the messaging that there is nothing we can do to save this planet, but we truly DO have the power to influence the landscape of our world! One means of doing so is by voting with our wallets: by buycotting[i] brands with sustainable business practises, or boycotting[ii] brands that wantonly pursue profits with little regard for their impact on the planet.
Feel free to post a comment of other ways that you add consciousness to your consumerism.
[i] buycott: deliberately purchasing a company’s or country’s products in support of their policies, or to counter a boycott.
[ii] boycott: refusing to buy, sell or use a product or service to show support for a cause.
Wesley Wright, MASc, Managing Director of Ahimsa Eco Solutions, is a passionate advocate for environmental stewardship. Wesley’s role includes spearheading the launch of an environmental movement to “Make Shift Happen” in an effort to move towards a sustainable and waste free society. He integrates his knowledge of different fields such as molecular biology/genetics, ecology, environmental engineering, critical thinking, ethics, permaculture, design, urban planning, organic gardening, and biomimicry to help empower people to realize their environmental goals.