Prius’s, beef, and egg cartons, oh my!: What’s wrong with ‘conscientious consumerism’

Prompted by my last post, I’ve been mulling over the idea of conscientious consumerism. This is a very American idea. It hinges on the preexistence of a capitalist society and emphasizes the power of the individual. It’s often touted as the solution to individual action in the face of climate change. But is it really? 

I have to admit, I really like the idea of conscientious consumerism, or ethical consumerism. Americans especially, but Westerners in general, are heavy consumers; it is appealing to think we can not fundamentally change our consumerism yet be ethical about it. This concept is also tied to the idea of broader corporate change. The idea is that if enough people buy the “right” things, companies will produce more of those things and fewer of the “bad” things. An example might be grass-fed beef over feedlot-raised beef; when more consumers buy grass-fed beef, more producers should turn to that method of raising beef cattle. Supply and demand. It’s that simple.

But I’ve been doing a lot of pruning lately and pruning time is an excellent time to think about these things. It’s focused work, and with the extreme overgrowth that I’m currently dealing with, the process is one of constant decision-making. There is no obvious way to prune the kiwi plants I’m working with since they look like they haven’t been touched in years; they’re out of control, and I’m basically doing damage control as judiciously as I can.

Damage control is probably a better way to think of conscientious consumerism than final solution. I’ll be the first to say that individual purchasing decisions are important, if only so that individuals begin to question the interconnected supply chains we all take advantage of daily. When we start to think about buying things as an ethical process, we can start to push for more ethical processes in product design, execution, and distribution.

“Going green” with our buying power can also be a way of sending signals to corporations and–perhaps equally important–sending social signals to our friends and neighbors about the acceptability of making ecologically-minded decisions. Peer pressure can be used positively. While buying something that is “eco friendly” may not have a noticeable practical difference, it may send a meaningful signal to ever-widening social groups. I believe this is called a ripple effect.

But. (There’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?) While I’ve been doing my kiwi pruning meditation sessions, more and more problems with this concept have occurred to me. On a psychological level, embracing conscientious consumerism as the major area of individual power both reinforces the supremacy of the individual and gives credence to our self-definition as consumerists.

Although Americans tend to view collectivism as disempowering, we desperately need collective action if we are going to actually shift some of the major players in climate change. If we want to talk about ripple effects, governments and major corporations have dramatically huger ripples than any single human; we’re already experiencing some of the milder effects of climate change. We inevitably need to adapt, and the sooner major groups of people with power can begin strategies of adaptation, the more well-prepared we will all be.

However, we are not all equal, at least not on a practical level. Conscientious consumerism really gives power to people with disposable income, or people with (generally) less at stake when it comes to climate change. Due to a variety of factors, the “global poor” (that is, the poorest people in the world, not the relatively poorest people in each country) will in many places be the most quickly and most severely affected by the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, but for obvious reasons, poor people have the least buying power. In other words, conscientious consumerism depends on people who feel no urgency about climate change making fairly extreme and widespread changes in personal behavior.

Someone I know who works in public health once told me that it takes 2-3 years to convince a population to regularly practice tooth brushing even with clear health benefits. Whether or not that’s an accurate timeline, changing behavior is hard. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, give up drinking, or get up earlier every day–you name it!–has faced this challenge. With conscientious consumerism, the theory demands that we (a) continually make the best possible choice when buying things, (b) do this with minimal personal motivation, (c) do this at (usually) some personal cost. We’re not exactly asking people to be altruistic, but it’s very close. 

Climate change is big and scary for most of us; it’s also abstract and for most of us it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how we personally are affected (or will be affected) by it. Those living in coastal areas may not find this so difficult (ditto to people living near deserts or in other extreme environments). When I was in college, some of the dorms were actually slightly below sea level; the campus in general was only 11 feet above seawater. We joked about future alumni events needing to be held on giant barges. It wasn’t that funny.

However, my objection to conscientious consumerism really goes beyond the basic problem which is simply that it won’t work. While a good idea in theory, in reality it goes against human nature. Even worse, many companies have caught wind of the idea and exploit good consumer intentions with green washing. Applying “green” labels to products we don’t really need or that aren’t really ecologically sound (or both!), many companies have recognized that there is a trend towards buying anything with a “sustainable” label.

Unfortunately, being an educated consumer is as important as being theoretically ethical. “Vegetarian eggs” are a great example. Chickens are not–I repeat, NOT–vegetarians, therefore you can almost be certain that vegetarian eggs come from factory-farmed chickens. The somewhat recent outcry against factory farmed chickens has resulted in some modifications to legislation about chickens. The “outcry” did partly take the form of conscientious consumerism, in that people showed, through their purchasing power, that they were willing to spend more money on eggs they perceived as being more ethical. Those might be, for example, eggs labeled “vegetarian.” (Or “free range,” “hormone free,” “organic”–some of which are terms with specific legal definitions as pertains to egg production and some of which can be applied at will without any justification. In either case, most are practically meaningless when it comes to actually improving the lives of chickens or the quality of eggs.)

As a result, people with enough income to do so tend to spend more money on eggs than they used to, but in general people are still buying factory farmed eggs. The factory farms may have changed slightly, but not enough to mean anything significant for the chickens or, for that matter, for the environment. So we have a pacified public, a very happy egg industry, and a very confusing egg shelf in the grocery store. Great.

But I’m only building up to my stronger arguments against conscientious consumerism. The biggest issue that I see with this theory is one I’ve already hinted at: the people with the most at stake (the poor, the marginalized) also have the least power (as usual). If “voting with our dollars” is the best we can do on an individual level, then we’re saying that people with more dollars have more votes. This just straight out isn’t fair.

And neither is one of the critical components of conscientious consumerism: the consumerism! The biggest paradox with conscientious consumerism is that you have to consume more to have more of a voice–but the consumerism itself is really a big part of the problem. It’s better to use less energy, period, than to offset your carbon footprint, but buying offsets (something that can be measured) sends more of a message than using less energy (something that can’t be measured, since your future energy use was theoretical to begin with).

Related to this, we often miscalculate how “good” our purchasing decisions really are. The Prius will give you better gas mileage than many other cars, but having more cars in existence means there are more cars driving places, which ultimately increases fuel consumption. [(A)If you didn’t have a car before buying a Prius, what are you replacing? Carpooling? Biking? Walking? Public transit? (B) If you had a car that still worked fine, that car was most likely sold second-hand to someone who could not afford a new vehicle like a Prius but will still be driven regardless of whether you own it or not. (C) If you had a car that didn’t work or you for some reason sent a perfectly usable car to the junkyard, you’re wasting materials that took a significant amount of energy to procure and develop into a car, and you’re taking up space in a landfill besides. (D) If you just put your old car in the driveway and never drive it or something… who are you?]

Cars are really important in the conversation about conscientious consumerism, because the car itself is a major consumer choice and what kind of car we choose impacts many other environmental factors such as fuel consumption, traffic congestion, and overall pollution, among others. Cars are also really big purchases. Unlike things like toothpaste, which we don’t buy very much of or very often (and don’t spend much money on anyway), when we buy cars, we are saying a lot about what we value, since we value cars enough to spend tens of thousands of dollars on each one. If we have money.

And here we can circle back to my earlier point; increasingly people with disposable income are willing to spend it on relatively expensive cars like the Prius. However, the more strapped someone is, the more they are likely to “settle” for a used car or a cheaper car which may not hold up as well or get as good gas mileage. They’re forced to make decisions based on simple economics rather than some kind of quasi-moral impulse. Yet they are also the people who would benefit the most from “paying less at the pump.” While buying enough Prius’s might give carmakers some idea that Americans are interested in more fuel-efficient vehicles, it also puts more vehicles on the road and means that, rather than having a range of fuel-efficient vehicles available to people of varying income levels, the long-term economic savings are going to people who already have enough money to buy a Prius. (And are therefore less incentivized to either buy a fuel-efficient vehicle in the first place or push for higher fuel efficiency in general.)

Additionally, it’s hard to be clear when you’re speaking with money. Going off-grid is usually eco-friendly. Let’s say you go off-grid using only renewable sources of energy for your power (I’m thinking about sustainably harvested wood, solar, wind, hydro, etc.–you could, of course, go “off grid” and use propane generators or “dirty fuel” simply without being part of the grid). Granted, you can think of this as saying “I won’t spend money on ‘dirty energy’!” But–to be a little dramatic–when people die (and therefore go off-grid) they have the same effect. The market cannot determine whether you’ve simply disappeared off the face of the earth or made a conscious choice to use renewable energy.

Another way of seeing this side of things is to think about strikes or boycotts. Let’s say a fast food company does something unpopular (as they do). If one person never goes to this fast food chain again, the chain won’t notice. Same for two people. It takes a critical mass of people not showing up before the company will take notice. It’s not impossible, but if I decide not to go to this company, I can feel good about myself, but it doesn’t mean anything. It only means something if I can convince all the other people who would have gone to that company to not go with me, and then it only really means something if we do that long enough to get the company’s attention and can deliver a clear message about what we want them to change.

And there is the problem with “scabs,” people who will cross picket lines in order to get the day’s paycheck. When we’re talking about conscientious consumerism, that means anyone who buys the non-organic version of something that has an organic version sitting next to it or whatever. Many people–like the people buying vegetarian eggs–may be crossing this line accidentally, through a sheer lack of education. Others cross it through necessity–they literally can’t afford the “better” version.

Further, most products we see involve a mixture of production streams. Eggs, to go back to an earlier example, come in egg crates. What seems increasingly common are very “ethical” eggs packaged in extreme layers of plastic, next to “unethical” eggs in compostable pulp-based cardboard crates. While I want to support the humane treatment of chickens, I don’t want to increase the amount of packaging produced in order to get eggs safely to my house. In an ideal world, I’d buy the eggs from the more ethical producer, but I wouldn’t pay them for the hulking plastic safety unit, which I don’t want to support. Yet I can’t separate them in reality. So, my dollar ends up saying that I support plastic crates just as much as it says I support ethical eggs.

This is worst when we have a wide range of options; if there really is a narrow range of possibilities, a clearly better option may arise and we may be able to “vote” for it. But with most products, we have many choices. The locally-grown peaches or the organic peaches? The almonds in a glass jar that I know I will reuse or the fair trade almonds in a bulky plastic container … or the almonds in the lightweight aluminum container… etc. We also make so many of these small decisions that for many of our purchases, a “bad” will quickly cancel out a “good” decision. One week I may buy free range eggs, but the next week I may need to have a prescription filled, so I economize on eggs and end up “voting” for bad ones.

So, to recap, conscientious consumerism

  • requires acting against self-interest and changing personal behavior
  • demands an increase in consumerism to have a “greater effect,” ultimately working against the overall goal of reduced consumption
  • cannot make clear statements.

But, after all this, is there any hope for this idea? Yes.

When we start to examine our own actions, as I mentioned earlier, we hopefully become better educated about the world around us and how various systems are interconnected. Individual purchasing decisions usually will not add up to more than a hill of beans (fair trade or otherwise), but institutional purchasing habits can start to have an impact. Institutions particularly have power with recurring expenses. Individuals tend to make fickle consumers. We buy one brand of pickles one week and another brand the next. But institutions usually establish long-term contracts for their recurring expenses, and insisting on ecological awareness with these contracts can encourage even larger corporations to offer better options while promising that these options will be supported financially for a given amount of time.

This concept depends on a matter of scale more than intent. I attempt to be a conscientious consumer, but I spend, on average, roughly $400/month. I can be as conscientious as I want (or not), but it doesn’t say much, because I don’t spend much. What we can do as individuals–even individuals with practically no purchasing power–is agitate for institutional change. We can talk to administrators in our schools, workplaces, and churches about some of the largest bills and how they might be used to vocalize a desire for ecological action. We can write to local politicians, attend political demonstrations, and vote for candidates we think will represent our priorities.

If the way to start thinking about these choices is to start reflecting on your own buying habits, then by all means DO IT! But we shouldn’t let a push for ethical consumption mean sweating the small stuff. We have enough to worry about already. Think bigger. Think beyond.

  1. Martin Reisinger said:

    As always, your article was insightful and caused me to reflect, but this one especially so. Your logical conclusion to “push” institutions which we can influence incentivizes me to be more demanding of businesses and our church. We are all in this together — and when we act, there is hope.

  2. monetarychange said:

    This post is right on spot, although it might have more impact if presented more condensed. I agree with all of your bullet point conclusions and would like to comment on them: 1) It is the status quo that conscientious consumerism
    requires acting against self-interest. I believe, however, that if we want to achieve significant change, something has to be done so that conscientious actions CONVERGE with self-interest. (Imagine organic bananas being cheaper than conventional ones.) 2) The conscientious consumer has little buying power, as you said. I see the crucial role of changing my individual consume behaviour in CREATING awareness that it is perfectly possible to live a great live with a small ecological footprint. By the time institutions consider whether or not to opt for more ecofriendly solutions, the general opinion of people should already be in favor of ecofriendly decisions, otherwise, they will find a loop hole to continue in the way they think whats gold for them. Institutional changes are important to settle things, but they need sufficient back up from the general population.
    Do you agree? Interested in your opinion.

    • Emma said:

      You’re right–I need to work on being more concise! Also, I agree with you, and those are two good points. Re 1), typically–THOUGH NOT ALWAYS–direct replacements of not-eco-friendly stuff with eco-friendly stuff tend to be more expensive, right now. There are three big factors here: (a) sometimes it is actually more expensive to produce “green” stuff (either because of materials–or, important to note, because of scale, which would be a factor we could potentially remove by popularizing these things!), (b) sometimes things may or may not be “green” but marketers have figured out that some segments of the population can and will pay more for “green” stuff for a variety of reasons, and (c) sometimes the not-green alternative is falsely cheap (I’m thinking about everything with corn in it, especially). The false cheapness in turn has three big reasons: (1) government subsidies and/or (2) pre-existing supply routes and infrastructure that do not have to factor into cost and/or (3) having non-monetized costs such as pollution… things that in turn will generate costs but not costs for the institution(s) responsible.

      But your point here is not really the cost of consumer goods, it’s the idea of self-interest. I get that–and I totally agree that sustainability needs to be in self-interest to make it happen. I think actually it already IS in most people’s self-interest, but not as directly as other things. For example, I prefer eating in such a way that I support local farmers, eat a lot of veg, and feel better (as a result of a cleaner diet!), but I also “feel good” when I binge on chocolate or heavily processed sweets, so there are times when my desire for immediate gratification trumps my less-strong-in-the-moment desire for a healthy diet, even when I KNOW that healthier diet will make me feel better in the long run. Further, when the ‘bad’ choice is easier, even if both are possible, I’m going to make the bad choice most of the time. So ‘good’ decisions not only need to be in our self-interest (which they arguably already are when it comes to a lot of sustainable things) but need to really provide immediate, positive feedback. THAT is the really tough element of making sustainable choices in people’s self-interest. With a lot of ‘lifestyle changes’ that’s really really hard, since the benefits of more sustainable living tend to accrue over time, but with prices, it is more possible to give that sense of direct positive feedback–except for some of the factors I listed in my previous paragraph.

      Re point 2) Yes–that’s the crux of it; conscientious consumerism can be a tool for awareness. And of course we sometimes forget institutions are made up of people… so when eco-conscientiousness spreads to individuals, sometimes those individuals are people who do have some leverage in larger institutions. However, I think on this point it is probably more noteworthy (and noticeable) to live a less consumerist life than a conscientious consumerist life. For example, few people are going to know whether you use an eco-friendly dishwashing detergent or not; people might actually notice if you bring home-made meals to work in reusable containers. When we think about awareness as a goal, it is then important to think about what actually sparks that awareness! Something I’ve found continually sparks something is composting–people I’ve lived with who were not composters began to realize how much less trash we were putting out when we composted religiously; it was that visualization that raised awareness. I dated a guy who literally wore two styles of tee shirts and had two pairs of jeans (he just alternated) and the fact that that was socially acceptable (he was really clean! just had a small wardrobe) made me think more deeply about how much variety you actually “need” in a wardrobe and that sort of thing. And note–both of these things are related to stuff, but are not really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about conscientious consumerism. (I’m pretty sure most of his tiny wardrobe was made in sweatshops, for example.)

      It’s a complicated conversation, because we also have to distinguish between (a) how we choose which things to buy, (b) how we budget more generally (i.e. whether I put more of my money towards experiences/services or material goods or X), and (c) where we put our money for purchases like utilities (where we often don’t have tons of choices depending on where we live). There are many ways to be a consumer; in addition, there are different ways of thinking about what is conscientious! But I hope I’ve given you a better sense of my perspective!

      • monetarychange said:

        Wow, you seem to be a very organised person! Love it how you list things 🙂

        Well youre right some ecological and healthy goods are already cheaper because they are less processed. Others are more expensive than conventional Foods for the reasons you named.

        What I meant with self interest was, simply put, to increase the price of conventional goods relative to ecofriendly goods. Think of eco taxes with which invisible costs could be included and ecofriendly products could be subsidized. Maybe there are also other ways. But bottom line is: Why on earth should it make sense that conscientious choices mostly cost more than “bad” choices? How will people (let alone companies) ever opt for ecofriendly options if their is NO financial incentive. Of course you have some moral or health-related incentives, but can you afford it as a lifestyle? Poor people but also companies who order large amounts of goods will mainly opt for cheap. So I think its an important goal to make “good” things cheap(er). In this way, there is the direct positive feedback you mentioned.

        I agree with you to choosing a less consumerist life style and I think the two examples you made show quite nicely how these things make an impression on others. Other things can be eating less or no meat or dairy and talk with people (which I do), as well as trying to ban as much plastic form your life as possible and explain people why (which I want to do) similarly have the effect that people start to see the “journey” behind products and start think about whether they approve of this.

        What I wanted to state is that choosing a non-consumerist but also to some extent a conscientious consumerist lifestyle has a big effect on people – much bigger than the one on the market – and that this effect is VERY important in a society to take place before any institutional can go on.

        But of course, the main topic of your post was that consuming conscientious bit still at the current rate will not solve our problems. Our aim must be to reduce our overboarding rate of consumption and growth.

      • Emma said:

        Yep – the underlying objective of conscientious consumerism is to drive the market to a place where ‘good’ stuff is better than ‘bad’ stuff. Even assuming a free market (which we don’t have, not truly), the hard part is that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are almost never that clear when it comes to the complicated products we typically deal with and the complicated relationships we have with different products. We need to go beyond individual and habitual buying habits and figure out ways to get larger changes happening. Having a population that would support environmental efforts would be good, but it shouldn’t be necessary; as you say, the ‘good’ choices ultimately need to be in people’s self-interest. But how do we make that happen? What dots do we connect?

        I wrote my original post in response to frustration with this as the dominant American message that I’m hearing–basically buy the right stuff and you’ve done your part. It seems impossible to buy only the ‘right’ stuff, when it comes down to it, and I don’t believe that it’s enough or even a very good way of getting a message through to major institutions. At the same time, it’s an easy message to sell, much easier than a lot of other things which seem to demand radically changing your lifestyle (though minimalism and some other ‘movements’ have their own followings, for sure).

      • monetarychange said:

        I agree with your statement. Consuming the right stuff an that’s it will not bring significant change. And in addition, it’s not always easy to determine what’s good or better.

        I feel, however, that we should not desencourage people starting to buy local and organic. The message should be: The decision to think about the social and evological impact of products before you buy them and motivate others to do likewise, is only the preparation of a fundamental change you actively have to stand in for – but it’s crucial to its success.

        For example, if I want the canteen to serve a vegan menu, talking to peers and creating broader awareness might be a first critical step before I contact the canteen to include a new vegan menu. But as you stated in your blog, only this second step can really change something.

        Concerning the topic of how to connect ethical behaviour and self-interest, this is what I’m about to write in my blog, if I finally have the guts to upload what I have written so far. I let you know when I have done so and hope to get some feedback from you!

      • Emma said:

        We definitely should not discourage people from making conscientious decisions with their consumption, especially with habitual purchases such as food. The issue here is rhetoric. People who are interested in and who educate themselves about climate change issues are going to start making changes to eat local, organic food and to make other kinds of lifestyle changes. (And making these changes, and talking about them, can be a great way to start widening the conversation to institutions.) But it can be frustrating to hear that this is essentially the limit of our power, and when you become educated about these issues it also becomes increasingly clear how much individual actions are merely a drop in the bucket. Hopefully, by providing alternatives to the ‘conscientious consumption as panacea’ rhetoric we can actually encourage people in their pursuit of eco-awareness.

        Let me know when you write about this – I’ll be interested to see it! Thank you for your productive comments. I think I’ve been able to clarify some of my own philosophy on this in the process, and hopefully you’ve gained from it as well!

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