A little over a year ago, sustainable fashion and environmental activist Alden Wicker published an article with a rather bold headline: Conscious Consumerism is a Lie. In her article, Wicker lays out a multi-pronged argument explaining why conscious consumerism is lacking as a movement. Wicker's article encouraged a variety of responses, with most coming to the defense of the movement rather than accepting her call to abandon conscious consumerism in favor of “a better way.” Whether you missed out on the debate or simply need a refresher, check out this recap of the conscious consumerism debate and find out why we believe that conscious consumerism is not a lie––but that it also can't do everything on its own.
According to Wicker, she spent four years advocating for the conscious consumption lifestyle before coming to the realization that small steps taken by consumers “will not change the world.” Wicker voices a series of complaints––inconvenient facts––that have her convinced of just how (allegedly) insignificant conscious consumerism is. There are, of course, valid responses to these complaints––but we'll get to that later. For now, here's a look at her list of grievances:
- Conscious consumerism won't change the world as quickly as we want––it's just a guilt trip. This 2012 study shows that environmentally-conscious “green” consumers don't leave any less of a carbon footprint than other consumers.
- Conscious consumer choices are “too little too late”––even if we want to, say, recycle or donate old clothes, fast fashion companies will continue to flood the market with cheaply sourced clothing.
- Sustainability is elitist and difficult––you need a lot of money, time, and research to be a conscious consumer.
- Conscious consumer choices are “no substitute for systematic change.”
- Individual consumerism is “bound to fail”; the US economy is based on maximized consumerism, and we are all subjected to the will of big marketing and advertising interests. Example? Bottled Water.
- Everything around us is so environmentally destructive that we're forced to comply with unsustainability.
- “It is very difficult to do something different from what everybody else is doing”; the social consequences of conscious consumption are very uncomfortable.
- The extra money spent on sustainable consumer goods could be better spent on political efforts or non-profit projects.
Following all of these complaints comes Wicker's call to action: spend money on lobbying political leaders, not on sustainable alternatives at the store. Are you convinced?
Well, we're not. Each of Wicker's arguments against conscious consumerism can be countered. Here's how:
- Conscious Consumerism is Slow/Ineffective––It's true that conscious consumerism might not drastically reduce everybody's carbon footprint right away. But neither would anything else in the world we live in; even governmental regulations forcing businesses to adopt eco-friendly practices take time to go into effect and to have any effects. And, as for the study, the great irony is this: the equivalence of “green” and “brown” consumers' carbon footprints was the result of a clear lack of conscious consumption. The study's interpretation of findings suggests that the supposedly “green” consumers actually compensated for environmentally friendly choices by consuming more goods; they weren't consuming in such a sustainable manner after all. In fact, the study specifically says that “Environmental behavior [sic] should not be interpreted in any case as superfluous”––yet this is exactly what Wicker does.
- Consumer Choices are “too little, too late”––This argument ignores the very clear power that consumer demand has in shaping businesses practices. There have been countless instances of conscious consumers influencing corporate behavior, and studies have found that consumers are willing to pay up to 5% more for ethically sourced clothing––a figure that will have undoubtedly caught the attention of many clothing retailers. This article also lays out some statistics about conscious consumerism's impacts on the food industry, particularly through Fair Trade. So, arguments that fast fashion or any other unsustainable industry is somehow invincible or impervious to consumer demand should draw considerable skepticism from anybody familiar with the sustainability movement (or, really, basic economics).
- Sustainability Movement is Elitist––Sustainable consumption does require some extra time, money, and general inconvenience... so what? The very same could be said for lobbying the government, donating to NGOs, volunteering with a non-profit, or any other kind of action necessary for effecting change in the modern world.
- No Substitute for Systematic Change––Nobody said conscious consumerism was supposed to replace corresponding systematic efforts to address environmental, labor, and human rights issues. You can buy Fair Trade clothing and call your local government representative too; it's not a one-or-nothing deal, and these things aren't mutually exclusive.
- Bound to Fail––Wicker fails to recognize the autonomy and intelligence of consumers that can be wielded against big business and marketing. In his response to Wicker's article and specifically her complaints about bottled water usage, Jonathan Levy rightfully asks “At what point do we take the burden off of 'the Man' to make good decisions and place it back where it belongs, in the hands of individuals?” Previously, Wicker claimed that the sustainability movement is elitist––but she then goes on to infer that people are helpless to inform themselves and adopt sustainable practices. Isn't that elitist?
- Forced to be Unsustainable––As people continue to adopt lifestyles of conscious consumption, the lack of sustainable product choices is increasingly becoming a non-issue. You may have noticed, for example, that vegan food options have started to take off around the world.
- Social Difficulties––The “social impediments” of conscious consumerism shouldn't discourage anyone from caring about what they buy. Conscious consumers everywhere are aware that their lifestyle runs against the current of mainstream society; that's part of what makes it exciting and rewarding. But not fitting in with societal norms is no reason to abandon conscious consumerism, and, similarly to many complaints about the lack of product choices, social resistance to sustainability is continually decreasing as more people learn about and join the movement.
- Better Uses of Money––Wicker does have a valid point when she mentions that the extra money spent on buying sustainable goods might instead go towards trying to enact systematic change through politics or aid projects. However, there's still no reason why consumers shouldn't spend their money in both ways, if possible. After all, consumer demand is an extremely effective way to exert pressure on companies when political efforts might fail or lose influence. Take, for example, the current scaling back of environmental regulations by the American government. Consumers might still be able to discourage businesses from reverting to unsustainable production if they threaten sales revenue through boycotts. Additionally, being a conscious consumer is also a way to lead by example. While politicians can mandate or promote adherence to certain ethical practices, it's still on the individuals to do what's necessary. Why wait for policies to be enacted before changing how we go about our daily lives?
The Choice Is Yours:
Conscious consumerism might not be the only way to effectively change the world for the better, but we shouldn't necessarily ditch our favorite Fair Trade brands so that we can contribute more to political campaigns or other humanitarian programs. Truth be told, no one method is likely to enact the change we want to see all by itself; it's going to take individual actions from consumers and systematic changes within government and business.
At a time when even conscious consumer advocates question how much power we have, it's more important now than ever before to show the world that consumers mean business. The only lie you can tell yourself when it comes to conscious consumption is that what you do doesn't matter.