What is ‘Conscious Consumerism’?

Towards understanding what it means to be a conscious consumer in the 21st century.

Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.

― Anna Lappé

‘Conscious consumerism’, ‘conscious lifestyle’ and ‘conscious living’ are relatively new phrases featuring in almost any sustainability related narrative. Lately, this over-use of the word ‘conscious’ (as someone who is also deeply interested in the hard problem of consciousness) has started to ruffle my feathers. From a language editor’s perspective, ‘conscious consumerism’ doesn’t really mean too much to me as a phrase. I do believe that to live a balanced life, we must strive to align our intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. It’s a meditation — an all-the-time process. So sometimes I tend to dwell on words so that I may properly align them with my thoughts, intentions, and actions. And today is such a day.

Identifying the (my) Problem

Looking up the word ‘conscious’ in the learner’s dictionary, I find that definition number 4 (not 1 or 2 or 3 but 4) matches the context in which it is being used:

4: [more conscious; most conscious]: caring about something specified
She is environmentally conscious. [=she thinks and cares about the health of the environment]
a cost-conscious shopper [=a shopper who is concerned about the price of things]

A Google Scholar search on ‘conscious consumer’ throws up several defining studies, most of which appear in the 70s, with a few in the 90s, and a growing number in the late 2010s.

It’s notable that all studies, in alignment with the definition above, qualify the word conscious:

‘Socially conscious’
‘Environmentally conscious’
‘Ecologically conscious’
‘Politically conscious’
‘Health conscious’
‘Value conscious’

So perhaps what’s troubling me is not the word ‘conscious’ itself but that its use goes without a qualifier. The problem with being an ‘all-conscious’ consumer is we put ourselves in the difficult position of dealing with too big a problem for our brains to process. We go into a kind of cognitive overload which hinders action. This point is further illustrated by Derek in this video on cognitive ease:

A Brief Literature Review: 1970–2000

To further understand what it means to be a conscious consumer, I poked into the academic literature—searching for conscious consumer / consumerism in paper titles. A 1972 study by Anderson and Cunningham presents the following image of a socially conscious consumer:

Credit: Anderson and Cunningham (1972)

Rings a bell? In a 1975 study, Webster tries to characterise the socially conscious consumer and also found that such a person is a member of the upper middle class counterculture, who operates at a low key. He/she is:

‘a consumer who takes into account the public consequences of his or her private consumption or who attempts to use his or her purchasing power to bring about social change.’

The same year, a follow up study titled The Self Actualizing Socially Conscious Consumer goes right out to show a positive relationship between Maslow’s self-actualisation and conscious consumerism. A 1976 study by Mayer reviews the negative findings of these previous attempts to conclude that it is imperative to consider the political dimensions along with demographic and psychological profiles when considering the socially/ecologically conscious consumer. The narrative through the 80s and 90s maintains the idea of the socially and ecologically conscious consumer as an agent of social change.

The Conscious Consumer as an Agent of Change: 2000–2017

It should be noted that most studies talking about conscious consumerism belong to marketing journals with a few sociology journals in the mix analysing political participation. The narrative of the consumer as a political actor continues into the 21st century, and I’m sure this is a question that’s crossed everyone’s mind: can my individual actions make a difference?

Credit: Willis and Schor (2012)

Following studies conducted in Europe and Canada, Willis and Schor (2012) attempt to answer the burning question for American consumers. Their answer resonates with previous studies — YES! Conscious consumption by individuals is positively related to political action. I found no study analysing the effect in India as yet. But it appears that boycott or ‘buycott’ actions translate into political pressure forcing producers to make new calculations about the consequences of their practices and choices that take into account environmental and social criteria.

Sustainability lifestyle blogger Alden warns us not to fully buy into the idea of conscious consumerism affecting political action without fully understanding the bigger picture and considering systems thinking.

We arrive at a definition for ‘conscious consumer’

Overall, I feel kind of relieved with the knowledge that individualised collective action works and it’s just a matter of time, momentum, and critical mass. Relieved enough to align myself with the following definition:

A conscious consumer is an agent of change who considers the social, environmental, ecological, and political impact of their buycott and boycott actions.

But there still seems to be something missing from this definition — ‘the impact of our actions on whom?’ How big should this sphere of impact be? This is a topic for further contemplation.

I’ve also understood that as a conscious consumer of the 21st century, there are two existing methodologies to help me align my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions: systems thinking and mindfulness.

I’ve picked up the first book and will begin to wrap my head around considering more and more interdependent variables. And that’s where mindfulness really helps (a journey that started for me in 2012). What it does at the deepest level is allow us to more easily consider the interdependence between all things.

Credit: davegray on Flickr

Out of curiosity, I looked but didn’t find any study analysing how a change in spirit leads to a change in consumption patterns and vice-versa. Did embracing a lifestyle of mindfulness lead me to change my consumption patterns? This is also an opportunity for further research.

An Ode to Reduce

Oh reduce
It’s begun
The battle between
desire
and self-hatred
I haven’t forgotten you


Note: I’d like to thank Tanushri Shukla for her helpful comments to improve this article.


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