How conscious consumerism gets it wrong

sustainable consumerism

You could be forgiven for thinking the world will be saved by shopping. Browsing the internet these days is to be bombarded with lists of ‘sustainable must-haves’ and edicts about what to avoid to save the planet. Buy beeswax wraps. Get an electric toothbrush. Don’t buy anything made with plastic or palm oil. Choose natural products. Get an organic duvet cover.

So is more and better shopping the answer to the planetary crisis? I remain unconvinced, and I’ll tell you why.

Too much of the product information is invisible to you and me.

To really know how sustainable a product is you’d need to know a lot about its backstory, and much of what you’d need to know is hidden at the point where you and I are choosing what to buy.

Let’s take just one environmental impact: water scarcity. To know how sustainable a product’s water consumption is we need to know not only how much water it took to produce it, but the answers to many other questions, such as ‘did the water come from a region where water is abundant or where water is scarce? Did it come from rain or from over-depleted aquifiers? And so on. Now imagine repeating a similar kind of exercise for CO2, biodiversity etc, for products with multiple ingredients or components, and with long supply chains. Now factor in that sometimes quite similar products can have big variations in their environmental impact.

If we are lucky and the product happens to come with an eco-label, then some of this research will have been done for us. Some researchers also propose mandatory environmental labelling on food. But until we have this level of information about the products we buy, then you or I are unlikely to fathom it all out by standing in the shop and reading a list of ingredients or noting what material something is packaged in.

It sets unreasonable expectations.

Essentially, ‘conscious consumerism’ puts a truly impossible burden on people to do copious research, shop around, and make tricky decisions based on scant information. Meanwhile, the ones who can most easily access the relevant information are those who produce and sell the things we buy, but they have every reason to conceal negative impacts and to use clever marketing tricks to convince us their products are green. The ordinary shopper with a conscience is set up to fail at this game.

And let’s face it: there will always be a limit to the number of people who have the time, motivation and level of education to take on such a project, while putting the responsibility on individuals to make carefully considered choices lets business and policymakers off the hook.

I notice also that much of this extra domestic and emotional labour – the research and shopping around, the angsty deliberations over making the right decisions – is done by women. The work of achieving more sustainable consumption needs to be equally shared between producers, retailers, government, the public, and, if I may say so, between the genders.

It perpetuates misunderstandings about what it really means to live sustainably.

There is a widely-held belief (encouraged by the ‘sustainable lifestyle’ industry) that environmentally friendly living is expensive and complicated, requiring a PhD in Sustainable Shopping Expertise and generous helpings of disposable income and time. Unsurprisingly, this puts many people off. In reality, low-impact living is, more often than not, a wonderfully lazy endeavour involving doing and spending nothing.

It doesn’t address the (becoming rapidly more endangered) elephant in the room.

The perception that living sustainably is all about careful shopping misses the essential point: it’s not about what to buy, it’s about how much. We can invest in multipacks of stainless steel straws, but they will still be made from finite resources which are extracted from the earth at environmental cost. We can fill our wardrobes with organic clothing and search for chocolate in eco-friendly wrapping, but all of this will have been produced with land, water and other resources that could have been left for wildlife or used to produce food. No amount of conscious consumerism will change the fact we live on a planet with limited resources, and the only real way to reduce our impact is to consume less of them.

Reducing your impact on the planet is not that complicated.

Here is how to reduce your impact on the environment this year, a 6 step guide: 1. Swap your petrol car for cleaner alternatives 2.  Avoid waste (of everything, but especially food and energy) 3. Swap your dirty energy company for a cleaner alternative 4. Avoid flying 5. Swap animal-based foods for plant-based foods 6. Stop shopping.