Conscious Consumerism on Combatting Climate Change

When I used to live in Northern California, I would spend my family beach days with a trash bag in hand, picking up empty plastic bottles and miscellaneous debris I found scattered on the sand. An hour worth of work and half a trash bag full later, I admired the cleanliness of my little section on the beach. I remember departing the beach every weekend feeling satisfied with the progress I made — until I returned the following weekend only to see the amount of litter had been replenished, as if someone had purposefully re-dumped all the garbage after I left. So, as accomplished as I felt after every beach clean-up, I quickly realized that my individual efforts were simply not what it was going to take to restore the environment. Something greater needed to be done — but what?

Eventually, as I grew older and with the help of social media, I learned about this idea of “conscious consumerism” — how I could alter the things I buy — and don’t buy — to foster a more environmental lifestyle. As opposed to anonymously throwing away a piece of litter, I could now speak and express my desires to corporations with my money. One of the most notable practices of conscious consumerism dates back to the beginnings of the American Revolution. “No taxation without representation” was not a phrase that the colonists shouted for fun, but an idea that was supported by boycotts against British imports. Similarly, the idea of consciously consuming today stems from public “mistrust in government to adequately address” certain problems that are shared by the people. As a result, citizens learned that if we want change, we must first take matters into our own hands. The act of intentionally choosing to support one particular business and not another provides a voice to the people, which, when loud enough, will be heard by larger powers and cause them to make changes on the higher level. Conscious consumerism is the gateway to social and political change towards environmentalism because it captures the attention of corporations and governments, forcing them to offer a listening ear to the demands of the people, and eventually, accommodate.

Fueled by America’s original form of boycotting, conscious consumerism has had multiple successes throughout history. Namely, the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott against segregation on public transportation. The persistence and grit of the protesters resulted in the federal and Supreme courts ruling “bus segregation…unconstitutional” in Browder v Gayle. The ruling not only marked a milestone for the Civil Rights movement, but also demonstrated the power of individual efforts in spurring greater political change. With each additional person that refused their business, the bus system crumbled, eventually succumbing in order to revive profits. When companies feel they are in jeopardy of losing money, they may go to desperate measures to avoid further losses; conscious consumerism can threaten this type of desperation. Although conscious consumerism in the form of boycotts has been victorious on several occasions, efforts in the opposite direction have also been successful.

The versatility of conscious consumerism — from refusing one business to supporting another — allows its benefits to appear in various forms. As the rise of conscious consumerism in recent decades has encouraged people to seek more innovative outlets for their money to talk, the practice of sustainable investing in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds has become widespread. According to The Economist, ESG funds can range drastically — expanding the possibilities of their impacts. For instance, “One fund focuses on companies that make an impact aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, others in ‘green bonds’ which fund environmental projects.” The effects of sustainable investing differ significantly from the those of boycotting. Specifically, investing sustainably not only supports important causes, but is also desirable in itself, as it has shown resilience throughout market downturns. A daily chart from The Economist explains how “companies with a greater ESG emphasis have high-quality and low-volatility characteristics.” Because of their high-quality and low-volatility nature, ESG funds maintain stability and serve as a buffer against market downturns. In other words, ESG funds hold their value even when the rest of the market declines. Such resilience makes ESG funds the best choice for individual investments — in addition to their further environmental implications. This raises the question of the greater benefits of spending money with intention. Beyond the ease to our conscience and the self-satisfaction we receive when our dollar agrees with our ethics, there can be observable, real-world implications. However, despite its track record of success in various sectors, conscious consumerism has a long way to go in terms of fixing the environment.

Because environmental issues still exist, some argue that conscious consumerism has no impact at all. In fact, a 2012 study comparing the footprints of consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers “found no meaningful difference between the two.” The comparison between conscious consumers and regular ones shows no meaningful difference because the data only interprets the impact of consumption alone. The larger — and more significant — implications of conscious consumerism are disregarded in this data. The implicit effects, such as increased social awareness for eco-products and environmentalism, are not accounted for. As a result, the true impacts of conscious consumerism are not represented here. In other words, although it is true that conscious consumerism is not nearly enough to save the planet on its own, it acts as the first spark in igniting real change.

Conscious consumerism is simply a starting point for further environmental change. Change begins with one person making the decision to defy the status quo, and, if their cause is something to believe in, others will follow suit. In recent decades, as people began to express their interest in eco-products, businesses took notice and adjusted their practices to meet those desires. Now, Dell, HP, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other “leading brands…compete to see who is greener.” As a result of the market’s competitive nature, when one brand is seen thriving from implementing new sustainable practices, the rest are going to try to do the same — but better. After all, “businesses are in business to make money,” so they are going to accommodate what consumers want, which we express through the allocation of our money. The momentum from conscious consumerism has also raised awareness about environmental organizations, such as Sierra Club, who worked with former “President Obama to protect more than 4 million acres of public lands.” Because of the collective effort of individuals consuming consciously, the greater issue of climate change is being addressed politically. Thanks to the rise of social media, the impacts of conscious consumerism are spreading faster than ever before; popular social media personnel promote their favorite eco-brands and -products online, which brings more attention to related environmental lobbyists groups and organizations. With this newfound audience, these groups and organizations have a larger platform — and thus, greater credibility — to press governments about revising old policies and implementing new ones. Without the foundation that conscious consumerism provides, achieving political change would be extremely difficult.

Because of this, it is fair to say that individual consumption and large-scale change go hand-in-hand; one cannot happen without the other. Yes, conscious consumerism alone is not enough, but neither is political action alone. We cannot expect those in power to solve our issues without doing what we can day-to-day to solve those problems ourselves. It takes individuals to spur political change, and it takes laws and regulations to ensure that everyone abides by the same guidelines. Change starts with one — whether it’s one person refusing to ride the bus, or another individual buying an ESG fund.

So, even though it does little in itself, I am still going to pick up trash on my beach days (I mean, it can’t hurt!), in addition to taking the extra steps necessary to encourage mobilization by corporations and governments. Now that I am eighteen, for instance, I can advocate for local regulations on littering and vote for legislators that share my values. The combination of individual decisions that drive conscious consumerism and the impacts of the collective action that results from it is the driving force behind combatting climate change.

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