Don’t believe the haters. Conscious consumers have already changed the world.
Individual, thoughtful choices do make a difference in the marketplace.
In “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world,” Alden Wicker makes the claim that buying green to build a better world is futile, because, she claims, it doesn’t create lasting change.
We at Green America agree that one cannot rely on green purchasing alone to resolve society’s most pressing issues. But we vehemently disagree when she says that shifting your purchases has no impact. “Voting with your dollars” can change the world. In fact, it already has.
Wicker did not accurately explain what conscious consumerism is and can achieve when many individuals together shift their spending. She writes:
As a sustainable lifestyle blogger, my job is to make conscious consumerism look good. Over the course of four years Instagramming eco-friendly outfits, testing non-toxic nail polish brands, and writing sustainable city guides, I became a proponent of having it all — fashion, fun, travel, beauty — while still being eco-friendly. So when I was invited to speak on a panel in front of the UN Youth Delegation, the expectation was that I’d dispense wisdom to bright young students about how their personal purchasing choices can help save the world.
I stood behind the dais in a secondhand blouse, recycled polyester tights, and a locally made pencil skirt, took a deep breath, and began to speak. “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers — to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester — will not change the world.”
First of all, conscious spending is not about “having it all.” At least, not in the sense that you get to “Buy! Buy! Buy!” whatever green stuff your heart desires whenever you desire it without a thinking about the impacts of shopping. The first part of being a conscious consumer is consciously questioning whether we need to make the purchase in the first place.
At Green America, we encourage people to embrace elegant simplicity: Reduce what you buy new. Reuse, barter, swap, and borrow everything possible. These are the easiest, most low-impact methods on the planet when it comes to getting what you need, and you might even foster some community connections in the process — as is the case with people across the country who have launched community book swaps, dinner cooperatives, or tool-sharing arrangements.
Then, buy used where you can. Craigslist, eBay, and local online classifieds have made secondhand shopping opportunities more robust and easier than ever.
But there are going to be times when you need to buy something new. Food comes to mind. Soap and shampoo. Maybe you’re not in love with the idea of buying used underwear. (We don’t judge!) Maybe your workplace requires you to buy a new cell phone. Or perhaps you want to buy the perfect gift for a birthday or holiday. You will shop. Even the most eco-minded among us will shop. But how will you shop?
You can go to Samsung, which works with Chinese supplier factories where workers are exposed to virulently toxic chemicals that are making thousands sick — and have even caused several deaths. (Green America is currently campaigning to get Samsung to clean up its supply chain and protect factory workers.)
You can go to a Godiva store, which gets the majority of its cocoa from West Africa, where child labor is a fact of life in the cocoa industry. Godiva earned an “F” on Green America’s chocolate scorecard for its refusal to certify its cocoa for fair labor practices.
Or you can choose the greenest companies available — those that are pioneering a new way of doing business. Without sweatshops. Without toxins. Without child and slave labor. Without environmental degradation.
Take American Formulating & Manufacturing, a certified member of our Green Business Network that offers a line of eco-friendly paints and finishes called AFM Safecoat. AFM Safecoat paints and finishes are free from hazardous air pollutants and other toxins like formaldehyde — a common paint preservative that’s a known human carcinogen.
AFM was one of the earliest US paint companies to go the less-toxic route, paving the way for other businesses to follow. Now, finding less-toxic paints, stains, and other home-improvement products is easier than ever, because companies like AFM led the way, and consumers bought and created demand for their greener products.
When people choose to buy less-toxic paint, it’s a way of choosing a world where all home improvement companies operate like AFM. If that were the case, how many fewer chemicals might there be in the air, water, and soil? How many fewer workers would be exposed to toxins on the job? How many fewer deaths from asthma and cancer might we see?
Purchasing choices have power. They are not just feel-good steps.
But the impacts don’t stop with individuals. Together, our green purchases add up to create huge results.
Twenty years ago, organic farming was a niche industry, amounting to $3.6 billion in sales in 1997. But more and more conscious consumers began to appreciate the idea of agriculture free from toxic synthetic pesticides that pollute air and water and degrade the soil. So they started shifting their purchases, starting with food, then clothing, body care, and more. By 2016, organic sales had boomed to $43.3 billion.
More organic sales mean more acres of healthier soils that sequester carbon rather than releasing it, helping to curb the climate crisis. They translate to thousands of tons fewer pesticides used — pesticides that have been making workers and consumers sick.
And for years, skeptics have said that buying renewable energy was merely a feel-good step. But more and more people kept installing solar panels, buying renewable energy credits, choosing green power through their utilities. And today, demand for green energy has grown so much that by 2020, renewables will be the cheapest form of electricity available, outpacing coal and natural gas, according to an analysis by Morgan Stanley from earlier this year. In fact, experts state that because of this growth — initially spurred by conscious-consumer demand — the US is poised to meet its Paris Climate goals even with the Trump administration pulling our country out of the agreement.
Not too shabby for a bunch of feel-good consumers.
Wicker also cites recycling as a do-good step that she feels “will not change the world.” But she’s severely underestimating the positive impacts of recycling on the environment and the climate. In 2013 alone, recycling and composting (which is basically recycling organic waste back into the soil) America’s 87 million tons of municipal solid waste reduced manufacturing energy use over landfilling by more than 1.1 quadrillion BTUs — saving enough energy to power 9.9 million homes, according to the EPA. Those efforts reduced 186 million tons of global-warming emissions, comparable to removing 39 million passenger cars off the road. (Recycling also conserves precious resources, and it saves more money and creates more jobs than landfilling, according to Green America research.) The recycling system isn’t perfect, but its benefits are significant enough that it’s well worth your time to participate in it.
Of course, to create a truly sustainable green economy, people need to buy less in the first place — and not rely on recycling to undo the environmental damage of rapacious consumption. When it comes to the three R’s, “reduce” and “reuse” come first for a reason. But recycling is a vital element of a sustainable economy.
Wicker rightly notes that it’s important to consider “the issue of privilege” when thinking about voting with your dollars. She writes:
The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist — and it most certainly is. You need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options, the leisure time to research the purchasing decisions you make, the luxury to turn up your nose at 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably, a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.
For those who are struggling, we all need to do whatever possible to ensure that everyone has affordable access to the healthiest options — like fresh, organic produce or nontoxic body care. Green America works to address economic inequities at their source, in part by holding predatory banks accountable for preying on the country’s most vulnerable citizens and encouraging investors to bank and invest with community development financial institutions that lift up low- and middle-income areas across the US and around the world, through fair and affordable loans and free financial education.
In addition, it’s a fact of economics that the higher the demand for a product, the cheaper it gets. The price of organic food keeps coming down because more people are demanding food grown without toxins. As we previously stated, the same is happening with green energy. When those of us who can afford it get what we need from the green economy, it helps drive the price down for everyone.
Elegant simplicity comes into play here, as well. Instead of buying a bunch of cheap items, people can make green more affordable by buying less — and reducing and reusing more. You’ll save money by embracing a buy-less mentality, and that savings can go toward a more expensive eco-friendly item.
Reusable green products often are higher quality, so they often last longer, too, which saves money in the long run. Consider an organic cotton shirt from a green company like Blue Canoe versus a “fast-fashion” T-shirt. Fast-fashion gets its name because it’s constructed quickly and made to be worn a few times and then discarded. Your fast shirt was likely sewn from thin, non-organic fabric that will tear easily, with seams that split without much wear. Also, fast fashion is often manufactured in sweatshops by exploited workers. And you know that statistic about how conventional cotton is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s pesticide use? It’s true. Plus, there are toxic chemical dyes and finishes to consider as well, which harm workers and the environment.
In contrast, the Blue Canoe shirt is made from thick organic cotton, so no synthetic pesticides. It’s tinted with low-impact dyes, and the company avoids chemical finishes altogether. It was knit and sewn in US-based factories by workers who earned a living wage. Plus, president Laurie Dunlap told us, Blue Canoe clothing is made to last for years, both in terms of durability and classic styling. One classic T-shirt purchase will likely save you five or more fast-fashion shirts in the long run.
To reiterate, despite the admittedly disheartening study Wicker cites showing that people who buy green consume as much as people who don’t, “vote with your dollar” does not mean “vote with rampant spending,” but is, in fact, electing to not give money to companies who are abusing their workers and degrading our planet. That’s where the education needs to be — not in telling people to throw up their hands and forget about the green economy altogether.
Buying green is also not an either/or proposition, as in either you buy green or you put your energy toward “something that really matters,” as Wicker puts it. Choosing to buy organic milk does not prevent someone from having the mental capacity to take part in a greater effort, such as pushing for policy to support organic farming.
At Green America, we frequently leverage the voice of conscious consumers with policymakers and corporate leaders. For example, we’ve long been pressuring Amazon to clean up its formidable cloud-computing operation, which hosts well-known names like Netflix and Pinterest — largely powered by climate-warming coal. Last year, Amazon buckled to this consumer pressure and purchased or expanded solar or wind farms to power its cloud, with a goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy in the future.
In addition, as we make green-living choices — and share our reasoning behind them with our friends and family, through conversations and social media — we help bring others on board. Voting with their dollars is often the entrée into taking more action for a better world. It creates a consciousness about the downsides of our economic system and encourages people to mobilize for systemic change.
Through our choices — from the goods we purchase to the causes we support — we can all, brick by brick, help create a green economy that stewards the planet, bolsters communities, and truly works for all, rather than a greed-based economy that exploits workers, contributes to the pollution and the climate crisis, and benefits the 1% at the expense of the rest of us.
We at Green America believe that together, we are powerful.
Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, editor-in-chief
Beth Porter, Better Paper Project director
Eleanor Greene, associate editor