What is Conscious Consumerism, and Can It Help Change the World?

You may have heard the common phrase “Every penny counts”, but never has there been a time in history when these words have borne more weight. In a modern world where the accumulation of ‘stuff’ has reached near epidemic levels, the need for conscious consumerism; spending every dollar and cent as mindfully as possible, has never been more vital if we want to bring about positive change.

The truth is, we need to buy fewer things and make them last longer. But that’s not always easy in a world driven by media enticements and ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’. Constant upgrades of our phones, wardrobes, cars… you name it, feeds into a society that creates overwhelming waste — and by default — more trash in landfills, and more pollution.

When a product’s useful life has passed, it’s a great idea to look at buying sustainable options to replace them. This is where the idea of conscious consumerism comes into play: by rewiring our thinking when we step into a store or look online, and search out more mindful options that will not only meet our needs, but also place less strain upon our resources and planet.

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” – Anna Lappe

By steering clear of animal byproducts (leather, exotic skins, etc.) and harmful chemicals in the production process, and instead favoring goods which use recycled fibers, natural dyes, achieve organic certifications, and reduce water consumption, we can drastically reduce our environmental footprint with minimal effort and really cause a mighty ripple effect of change.

OUR GROWING POPULATION AND SHOPPING HABITS

A staggering 7.6 billion people currently inhabit our planet. According to the United Nations, this number is set to hit the 8.6 billion milestone by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. In other words, earth will be 47% more crowded within the next eight decades.

Finding the space and resources to accommodate this exploding population will require equal parts innovation and compassion for the natural world.

The ascension of a brand-new middle class will add further complexity to this challenge. About 140 million people are joining the middle class annually and this number could rise to 170 million in five years’ time. Economic prosperity in developing countries is resulting in new market opportunities for corporations – the global demand for cars, electronics, luxury clothing, and meat will continue rise.

Without the adoption of conscious consumerism, our desire for the ‘next big thing’ could lead us to the next big environmental crisis. Our shopping habits define how industries such as fashion behave — it’s up to us to show them that we no longer want frivolous items that we’ll replace within 12 months or less. We want items made to last, and without doing harm to the environment.

CURRENT CONSUMER LEVELS CANNOT BE SUSTAINED

The Global Footprint Network estimates that the resources of 1.7 earths are required to sustain our annual global rate of consumption. We’re currently fishing, harvesting, and polluting far more than the earth’s systems can handle, without much sign of a course correction. We are living beyond our means in the truest sense of the term.

Depletion of our most precious resources can be attributed to many human activities, including essential functions like feeding, housing, and clothing the world. All of these actions, while necessary, are inherently resource intensive.

Our actions as consumers have the power to shape a new way of production, consumption and disposal.

To put things into perspective, the production of an average pair of jeans requires 3625 liters of water, 3 kilograms of chemicals, 400 MJ of energy, and 16 m2 of harvested land. As more and more consumer dollars enter the marketplace, we will collectively exert greater stresses on natural systems.

THE RISE (AND HOPEFULLY FALL) OF FAST FASHION

Over the past couple decades, fast fashion has taken a stronghold in developed economies. Companies like H&M and Zara now command a large portion of market revenue while producing mountains of cheaply made consumer goods.

These garments are designed for convenience, without much consideration for sustainability. They are the antithesis of conscious consumerism, and breed a throwaway mindset of rapid use-discard-replace.

As a result of falling costs, streamlined operations, and rising spending, the amount of clothing produced from 2000 to 2014 increased twofold. The number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60% during the same time period.

The onus is on the most developed countries to lead by example and to adopt sustainable consumption habits.

The trend of increased production and consumption ultimately results in garments being diverted to landfills and incinerators. These statistics, coupled with population and income growth projections, paint a dreary picture for the health of our natural systems.

USING CONSCIOUS CONSUMERISM TO DRIVE CHANGE

Like it or not, we cast a vote with every dollar we spend. The good news is that there are tons of resources to help us identify the most ethical choices. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has identified member companies that uphold high levels of transparency throughout their operations.

Membership in the SAC signals to consumers a commitment to stewardship. Also, downloadable apps like Good On You and Done Good provide easily accessible guidance to consumers navigating the crowded retail space. Using these tools and countless others, we can make significant strides in reversing unsustainable consumerism.

The key is to recognize our habits, and review our shopping choices before we hand over our money. Ask yourself: have I considered the ideals of conscious consumerism? Can I buy a secondhand version instead? Is there a more eco-friendly alternative? Was this manufactured under ethical standards? Am I making the best decision I can if I really want to bring about positive change?

THE ROLE OF THE PRIVATE SECTOR

In 2011, the outdoor retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Black Friday. The ad featured one of the company’s signature fleece zip-ups with the text ‘DON’T BUY THIS JACKET’ displayed prominently on the page. The remainder of the ad detailed the resource intensity of one single Patagonia fleece, and guided consumers on how they could be better environmental stewards.

In a world of rabid consumerism, Patagonia was taking a rather radical stance. The company was encouraging customers to reconsider their shopping habits, to forgo unnecessary purchases, and to wear out their clothes before making new purchases. This approach was in stark contrast to almost all other retailers, who encouraged endless consumption with little regard for our planet earth.

But guess what? It was a brilliant piece of marketing! Patagonia convinced many consumers to rethink their purchasing decisions, while at the same time building intense brand loyalty and staying true to the company’s ethos. This ad wasn’t just sustainability lip service.

HOW KBC ENCOURAGES CONSCIOUS CONSUMERISM

Karner Blue Capital, as a responsible investor, seeks to identify companies that achieve the highest level of corporate sustainability. We take a wholistic approach to analyzing each company, favoring those with the most rigorous environmental policies and practices.

By measuring each company against its peers, we hope to move the corporate needle on issues such as biodiversity management, environmental preservation, and animal welfare. We look forward to partnering with companies in the textile, apparel, and retail industries as they develop sustainable products catered to the an increasingly resource-constrained world!

“Don’t invest in fashion, invest in the world.” – Vivienne Westwood