How To Be A Conscious Consumer In An Imperfect World
Is shopping with a conscience “enough” to make a difference? The ethical dilemmas of a sustainability activist.
Written by Nandia Batheja
I have a pair of worn-through running shoes that give me early signs of tendonitis every time I use them. They’re lopsided (because I’m a poor runner) and they’re old, but they still kind of work.
I also have tanks and tees from over a decade ago; some have holes in them, some are unflattering and floppy. I use them for exercise clothes, dance class and sometimes I try to pull them off for work (this blazer covers most of me anywayyy, no?).
Marie Kondo would probably shake her head and tell me it’s time to LET GO.
But my inner Lorax is like, “I DON’T WANT TO CONTRIBUTE TO MASS POLLUTION, RAMPANT CONSUMERISM AND TO COVER MYSELF WITH SYNTHETIC MATERIAL MADE BY CHILD LABORERS AND ABUSED PEOPLES!”
Oh, I’m well aware I have a tendency of jumping to extremes . . .
The truth is that there is the way I want to live — in complete alignment with all of my values and ideals in a world that allows me to do so — and then there’s my reality.
In my ideal world, the major athletic shoe companies aren’t exploiting labor or wreaking havoc on the environment. In my reality, I need to suck it up and get new running shoes. Or I need to stop running.
In my ideal world, I grow all the vegetables I love to eat in my backyard and get everything else I need from the farmer’s market, where of course I bring my own bags and baskets.
In my reality, I live in a small apartment, have no backyard, my three plants seem always to be on the edge of death and my busy city life means that sometimes I have to forgo the farmer’s market and go to . . . a grocery store . . . and buy things packed in . . . plastic, lots of plastic.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This is something my father likes to remind me over and over, and, incidentally, it’s a saying we use quite often at art & eden.
In my loyalty and frantic urgency to attend to the injustice in our world, I can become easily defeated when I have to compromise on my ideals. But the truth is that if I lived in a world where my ideals never faced conflict — a world void of inequality, corruption, pollution and violence — then I wouldn’t be writing this article and “changemaker” might instead refer to a gentle pastime making ancient coins. But because we are so, so far from that world, the work of doing good is also the work of learning when, how, where to adapt, when to refuse compromise, when to embrace it and how to do the best we can with what we currently have.
I can sign up for a CSA. I can avoid the plastic. I can repurpose my clothes. I can volunteer in a community garden. I can choose public transportation and use my bike. There are, in fact, many no-compromise decisions I can make while still meeting my needs. And when I do need to participate in the consumer market, I can at least try and choose businesses that promote the values and principles I believe in.
Re-imagining business as a force for good; the inspiration for founding our social enterprise art & eden. Instead of trying to adapt within a model that inherently values profit above all else, we decided to create another option, to build what didn’t yet exist. If we have healthier, safer and more caring choices, then maybe we don’t have to transgress our ideals in order to get through a day in the modern world. Because if you don’t have the time, resources or the quickly-disappearing knowledge of how to make your own clothes, chances are that you’re going to have to buy something at some point. For parents who are already juggling hundreds of responsibilities while trying to raise their children in healthy, nontoxic environments all while teaching them good values and habits — having quality, ethical choices matters!
(image: Greenpeace “Pregnant women protest outside the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel against man-made toxic chemicals that contaminate unborn babies”)
art & eden set out to walk a different way, leaving the abusive, damaging fast fashion industry for something that is safer to the earth, to children and to factory and farm workers. That way, when you need to be a consumer, you can at least have healthy and conscience-oriented options to choose from. We make our clothes with organic cotton, which means that we don’t use the insecticides and environmentally damaging procedures that have become a default in the fashion industry.
We also source from GOTS certified factories and mills; everything in our supply chain is certified by this third-party group to ensure we don’t have any traces of the toxic dyes and chemicals so commonly used in fast fashion. These chemicals not only harm our planet, but they also hurt the people working with them and living nearby. GOTS is our “check-up doctor” so to speak, also working to ensure all factory employees and farmers are getting paid fair wages and have safe, humane working conditions. Child labor or any kind of forced labor/overworking are strictly prohibited and would result in immediate termination with the factory.
Is buying organic, GOTS certified clothing the perfect answer? No, it’s not. I shop sustainably, “vote with my dollar” and write this article all while holding an acute awareness of the charitable-industrial complex. I know the danger of psychological eco/ethical-marketing, of businesses that advertise how they’re giving back so that people feel really good about their purchase, so good, in fact, that they no longer feel a need to make any other kind of change. Buying Fairtrade coffee is enough, isn’t it? What about if they also donate a portion of their profits?
Not quite. As sustainability journalist Alden Wicker explains in her article about the lie of conscious consumerism:
Choosing fashion made from hemp, grilling the waiter about how your fish was caught, and researching whether your city can recycle bottle caps might make you feel good, reward a few social entrepreneurs, and perhaps protect you from charges of hypocrisy. But it’s no substitute for systemic change.
Oof. Okay. So what are we left with then? What do we do? How do we be? What does lead to systemic change?
I am reminded of the basic improv comedy principal “Yes, and . . .” A practice that allows for multiple options, for unexpected and creative directions — whatever your fellow actors or your audience comes up with, you try it out, go with it, see what happens. There is no one “right” or one “best” way.
Can I shop less? Yes and . . . When I do shop, can I choose businesses I believe in? Yes and . . . Can ethical brands become my choices, while volunteering, lobbying, campaigning and awareness become my actions? Yes and . . .
To be a conscious consumer means, perhaps, to be conscious of the whole complex, messy, intersectional and implicated parts of being a consumer, period. This weekend I will hold the Lorax’s hand as I go shopping for new running shoes, let him guide me to the best choice available and then we’ll curl up on the couch to read up on the EPA and make some Senator phone calls.
Yours in imperfection and a continual willingness to try,
Originally published at www.artandeden.com.