Why conscious consumerism isn’t a lie (but might make you an insufferable human being)

If you’re in the same filter bubble as me, you might have seen Alden Wicker’s article ‘Conscious consumerism is a lie, here’s a better way to save the world’. She argues that the systemic changes we need to solve environmental problems are so enormous that campaigning and lobbying are more important than individual purchase decisions. She decries the lie that “every purchase you make is a “moral act” — an opportunity to “vote with your dollar” for the world you want to see.” Because “ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want.” She points out that capitalism engineers overconsumption, which is the bigger problem. She advocates buying less stuff, charitable donations, volunteering and sustained lobbying that involves phone calls or public meetings, over clicktivism and one-off purchase decisions.

Wicker is absolutely right to highlight the importance of structural change, and to point out that it is not enough to just make feel-good ethical purchase decisions. Calling up policy makers or meeting your MP is obviously better than clicktivism. Charitable donations to a campaigning NGO or not for profit can change policy and institutions in ways that an individual purchase never can. She is right that over-consumption is a big problem, and that scrutinizing purchase decisions requires time and research. But she overstates this argument. She ignores the pivotal role of food — which we cannot simply consume less of. She ignores the fact that one of the biggest solutions to climate change comes down to individual food consumption choices. She doesn’t mention that one of the “structural incentives” that keeps some companies with unsustainable business models in business, is the fact that their consumers don’t give a shit. Or we do give a shit, but when we’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to make a snap decision about what to eat for dinner whilst speaking on the phone to a friend about our holiday plans, good intentions do not translate into conscious decisions.

But we can make conscious decisions, especially when it comes to what’s for dinner. And they will change the world.

The hungry farmer paradox

You might think that it’s good to buy local, to support farmers in your country and reduce air miles. This is right for some types of food. But unless you live in the tropics, you won’t be able to get coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and a whole host of other foods locally. These crops tend to be grown by smallholder farmers, working less than two hectares of land. Right now, 500 million smallholder farmers grow 80% of the world’s food. Most of them struggle to live and feed their families on under $2 a day. And your decision, for example, about whether to buy Fairtrade coffee, makes a difference. Because there is robust and growing evidence that Fairtrade farmers enjoy higher living standards and lower levels of poverty. The World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation see improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers as key to reducing poverty. Which is why Oxfam have gone to great lengths to map the big 10 food companies and rate their treatment of smallholder farmers, so you can check out how your favourite brands score and boycott or buy accordingly.

The elephant in our carbon budget

The recently published book, “Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming”, measures, models and rates the highest impact, scalable solutions to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the next 30 years. If you look at the top list of 80 ranked by impact here you might notice that 17 are to do with food. Reducing food waste is ranked 3rd by impact, responsible for avoiding 70 Gigatonnes of CO2 or equivalent. Wicker bemoans “fights about the moral superiority of vegans” for diverting our attention away from the “true power brokers.” But shifting to a plant based diet is ranked the 4th biggest solution to global climate change, responsible for avoiding 66 GT CO2 EQ, more than electric vehicles, nuclear power and rooftop solar combined.

So actually I think arguments about the ethics of veganism are pretty important. In fact I did a quick calculation based on Drawdown’s table and figured out that 31% of the carbon emission reductions in the top 80 list come from changes to the food system.

Food choices shape landscapes and livelihoods

Why is 35% of food in high income countries wasted by people in their home? Because we don’t plan our meals properly or eat leftovers.

Why do food companies get away with continuing to sell meat and milk and cheese, even though we know they’re responsible for 15% of global GHG emissions? Because we keep buying them.

Why did a senior UN official say that we only have 60 harvests left at current rates of soil degradation? Because there isn’t enough demand for organic or sustainably grown food.

Why are tropical forests disappearing? Because more people than ever before are eating meat, and not enough people are boycotting brands for palm oil deforestation.

Put another way, how come 1.65 million smallholder farmers benefit from selling Fairtrade? Or more than 10% of farmland is now Organic in 11 countries? Why is the dairy industry in crisis while sales of vegan milk rocket? Because of conscious consumption.

Three budget-neutral, conscious consumption choices that don’t require a degree in chemistry

  1. Eat less meat and dairy. Will be good for your health and save money. Fox news even thinks it will make you smell more attractive to the opposite sex. (You could spend your excess cash on a two week holiday to Greece like this couple , or re-invest the savings in choice 3)
  2. Plan your meals and eat leftovers to reduce food waste. Will save money. On average in the UK £60 a month.
  3. Buy Fairtrade and Organic. Will be more expensive. There is no scientific consensus that Organic food is healthier, but there is growing evidence of the danger of pesticides in food. Do as much as you can within your budget offset by 1 and 2.

To put the additional cost of Fairtrade and Organic in perspective, in the UK we spend about half as much of our incomes on food compared to the 1950s. Our expectation for cheap food is another one of the structural incentives which keeps food production unsustainable and unethical.

Why should I tidy my kitchen cupboard when the world’s in such a mess?

Don’t get me wrong — solving the big problems in our global food system also requires structural changes from international institutions, governments and companies. (I work for a food company in sustainability for this reason, and the views in this article are my own).

Governments should be doing more to mandate sustainable farming and end subsidies for meat and dairy producers. Retailers should take action on food waste. Big food companies should be doing more to support smallholder farmers and shift suppliers to more sustainable farming methods. You could be talking to your MP about how Brexit will impact the UK farming industry. Please campaign on the issues you care about to make a positive impact, or donate to organisations that will campaign on your behalf.

But don’t be fooled by a false choice between conscious consumerism, campaigning and philanthropy. Or fall into the trap of thinking that individual action is pointless in the face of such large systemic challenges. When I was a teenager in the 1990s lots of people had this postcard on their bedroom door:

It’s a rhetorical justification for inaction that’s satisfying to the rebellious teenager in all of us. But on closer inspection, it doesn’t really make any sense. The fact that the world is in a mess doesn’t make it more difficult to tidy your bedroom, and tidying your bedroom doesn’t really stop you from cleaning up the world.

And I know it’s a hassle to scrutinize your shopping basket. I know it would be better if you didn’t have to because we lived in a world with perfect institutions and governments and companies. I know some vegans are unbearably smug. But every food product you buy is a moral act. It is a vote with your pound or euro or dollar for the type of world you want. A vote which is not necessarily more expensive (try asking a vegan bin-diver how much they spend on food). The jury’s still out on whether it turns you into an “insufferable human being” (although some of the most humble and emotionally intelligent people I know are vegan bin divers). It does require a bit of time to think, and the formation of new habits. It doesn’t stop you from campaigning or donating to a cause. We need conscious consumption and campaigning and philanthropy.

So please tidy your kitchen cupboard. And call up your MP. And donate to a good cause. Because the world is in such a fucking mess.