Can conscious consumerism save the world?

Can conscious consumerism save the world?

At the end of 2017, 15,000 scientists from around the world issued a “warning to humanity” that our time is running out to tackle climate change. If we don’t act soon it will be too late, and we’re not doing enough.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2016 Global Shapers survey gauged the priorities and concerns of more that 26,000 millennials (age 18-35) from 181 countries. According to the survey results, the most critical problems in the world include:

  • Food and water security
  • Lack of education
  • Poverty
  • Climate change and destruction of natural resources

Over the next few decades there will be a wealth transfer as millennials born between 1981 and 1997 will take over an estimated $30 trillion in wealth from the baby boomers and become the dominant spending power. We will also face some of the biggest global challenges as pollution, destruction of natural resources and climate change become even more critical critical.

A 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report by Nielson found that globally, 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on products from a sustainable brand, with 73% of millennials indicating similar preferences. (However, it is worth noting that several studies have also found that while consumers appear to be socially conscious in surveys, it doesn’t always match up to their real-world behaviour, and cost, functionality and quality are still major factors in the purchase decision process).

The 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study found that millennials are willing to make personal sacrifices to make an impact on the issues they care about. According to reports, this generation are switched on to social and environmental issues, willing to support brands associated with a cause and expect companies to publicly commit to corporate citizenship.

The soon-to-be global spending power are already “voting with their wallets” and demanding more from brands to have a positive impact on the global issues they care about and are concerned by.

But can we really save the world by shopping with ethical businesses?

‘Conscious consumers’ are acting as agents of change by using their personal spending power to actively encourage brands that have a positive social and environmental impact, taking boycott or ‘buycott’ actions to put pressure on businesses to change their ways.

Unfortunately, as brands have begun to recognise this demand and realise that consumers will pay more for it, we have seen a rise in greenwashing – brands investing money into marketing and PR activities that make them seem more green and ethical than they really are.

Confusing, greenwashed marketing messages and the overwhelming amount of issues can leave consumers feeling powerless and many critics of the conscious consumerism movement say that it’s not actually possible under capitalism.

We live in a world where corporations can be more influential than governments and our political systems are often influenced by business concerns. It’s easy to feel disheartened and many are left wondering – do consumers really have any power?

Journalist and sustainable lifestyle blogger Alden Wicker wrote a controversial piece in Quartz last year about why conscious consumerism is a lie. The article was met with mixed responses from the ethical and sustainable communities.

Alden argues that if we make small, everyday ethical purchasing decisions without questioning and challenging the larger, unsustainable corporate structures then we won’t change the world as quickly as we want (or need) to. Although small ethical choices make the individual consumer feel good about themselves, it can serve as a distraction from the bigger picture.

(I don’t think Alden is completely against conscious consumerism – but she recognises the complexity of the issue and the limitations of the movement. This piece on her blog EcoCult explores the issue in more detail and lists some ways we can all expand our influence further beyond just our ethical shopping choices).

Tackling global issues like climate change, poverty and habitat destruction isn’t going to happen in a vacuum – it requires systematic change.

Surveys have found that the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charges in the UK in 2015 have reduced single-use plastic bag consumption by over 80%.

Of course prior to the charges there were environmentally-conscious shoppers who declined single use bags anyway, but it took a government-imposed, mainstream system to truly change consumer behaviour, break bad habits and change mindsets.

The government have now announced their 25 year environmental plan which includes a pledge to eradicate all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ by 2042.

Many conscious consumers have been aware of the plastic problem long before Blue Planet II brought it to our attention and the issue went mainstream – but now there is significant consumer pressure on brands to ditch excess plastic packaging, plastic straws and explain why there is plastic in their products (like the current teabag scandal raging on Twitter).

Major brands from Pizza Express to Marriott Hotels (who used 300,000 straws last year) have now pledged to remove plastic straws in response to this growing consumer demand.

The environment was identified by a Tory think-tank as the key issue for young voters – a major demographic that predominantly voted against them in the last election.

Plastic pollution has now become a major priority for the government  – in part probably to capture the interest of a younger, sustainably minded demographic of voters. Whilst this is potentially positive, there is a danger of it becoming ‘political greenwashing’ with no real, tangible impact – much like the greenwashing of major corporations.

Governments, commercial markets and consumer demands are inextricably linked, and to have real, meaningful impact the whole system must be considered.

Ethics and sustainability are complex areas to navigate – often requiring compromise, extensive research and causing confusion at every turn. Living more ethically involves overhauling your lifestyle, one step, product and cause at a time.

Not everyone will become a ‘conscious consumer’ until the other options are off the table or it’s the cheapest, easiest way to live. (Plus it’s important to consider those that are unable to participate in the movement, for a variety of reasons – not everyone is able to participate as fully as others, as Francesca explores in this interesting and important article on her blog Ethical Unicorn).

Many conscious consumers are criticised for shopping at all – with the most ethical or sustainable option being not to buy something new, but to reduce, repurpose or repair instead. Of course this is the case but it’s not always the most realistic option, depending on your lifestyle.

The first part of being a conscious consumer is about questioning whether you need to make the purchase and if no other alternative is available, finding the most ethical and sustainable option.

The driving force of commerce is supply and demand and while we live under capitalism, commerce is king. The Green Stars Project has written an interesting response to the claim that “conscious consumerism isn’t possible under capitalism” – challenging the often cited view that almost everything is controlled by just a few global corporations.

It’s true that several major companies control the majority of the market in many cases, but social enterprises and ethical alternatives do exist – and as Green Stars points out, the fact that these responsible companies are usually in the minority is exactly why consumers need to support them.

Conscious consumerism grows the market share for ethical alternatives and demonstrates the much needed demand that businesses respond to.

As an individual, making more conscious purchasing decisions can feel empowering and it’s usually the first step people take into a more sustainable, ethical lifestyle. It’s not a simple issue and there are (rightfully) many questions about how elitist the movement is and indeed how much of an impact it is really having.

However, if conscious consumerism is the starting point to engaging people in a wider conversation, community and force for good, then it is having a positive effect.

We’re at a tipping point with several global issues that will require drastic action, quickly and on a major scale. Small, individual changes are the first step to becoming a more mindful, socially conscious society.

It can be easy to feel powerless in the face of major issues. Often we don’t care about a cause until it’s too close to home, and by then it’s often too late. If we are going to create a meaningful change in the face of these global challenges, we need to work together as a society. Governments and businesses will respond to consumer demand, so it is our choices and actions as conscious consumers that have the power to truly impact change.


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