Can we consume consciously?
In recent years we have seen an increasing demand from consumers for brands to be more upfront about their ethical and environmental impacts, and so we now find ourselves plagued with a plethora of greened-up ad campaigns (with accompanying mindful slogans, of course) from almost every huge corporation going. They constantly remind us to make the conscious choice, and as luck would have it, every brand has jumped onto the environmentally-made-with-sustainable-resources eco-bandwagon. That should make everything super easy for us consumers, right?
Although people seem to be genuinely awakening to the realisation of the impact of their choices on other people and our environment, industries are also wising up to it and are attempting to cash in on it rather than reflecting on, and then changing their core business values. They are businesses at the end of the day, and they work by meeting our needs as plentifully as possible, and right now that means selling us every conceivable eco product on this rapidly warming earth. This can be easily achieved by companies who will literally lie to us while promoting their not-so-eco eco product, and making surface-only changes to make us believe that they're not actually exploiting workers and the planet's limited resources - these are usually those ones that email you 50 times a month to show you what's new, new, new. It is after all cheaper to re-market themselves as green, than to actually go green - and this is what is being referred to as greenwashing. So, how do we get past this façade when we’re constantly being bombarded with new information on what it means to be “a conscious consumer”?
Firstly, it means detecting the BS in marketing strategies. Advertising, as we know all too well, tries to make us feel like this product will make our life better in some way, it tells us that we need it - and a lot of this marketing is now focused on telling us that this product will make us decent-ethical-sustainable humans. You know, a person who cares about people and the planet, and who is actively taking steps to make positive and lasting change in this world (hey you, you're practically a hero for buying these vegan trainers to replace the barely scuffed ones in sitting in the bottom of your wardrobe, good job pal). In reality, we need to be asking a lot of questions about the origins and real value of these products to determine whether it will actually deliver on its eco-promise (like are those trainers actually vegan? As stating vegan doesn't always mean what it says on the label - ask L'oreal). Here are a few questions to throw at that eco-purchase;
does this brand pay fair wages to their workers?
are their manufacturing processes environmentally friendly?
what chemicals are used in making the product?
do they support eco-friendly agriculture systems?
what are they currently doing to reduce their overall carbon output?
what and who invests in this company?
do they make it super easy for you to find all of this information out?
do they overproduce and over-advertise goods to keep you buying more?
The last question is one that might often be overlooked, but there is a highly orchestrated, very well funded, superficial culture that runs on seducing our perceived need for peer approval and social status. This need is met through ever changing trends and lashings of instant gratification. This is particularly true of the fashion industry, now well known as one of the world’s leading polluting industries, in fact second only to oil. Simply put, overproduction of any item is not going to be sustainable for long.
As much as the industries and corporations behind the environmentally detrimental and ethically devoid mass production are to be blamed and held accountable (obviously!), they are responding to a continuous increase in consumption demands. Each individual consumer needs to be aware of their impact of over-consuming, whether it be clothing or technology or food, and what the true cost attributed to each product is - and you can bet your nice, new vegan trainers that it's not going to be printed on the label. Consumers need to continue demanding greater transparency from companies, about their supply chain practices and the origins of their resources. As consumers, we need to actively seek and implement social and cultural change at every level. In other words, buy what you believe in, and not too much of it.
Aside from the greenwashing corporations who are merely taking necessary steps to move away from the negative image of their business models, many smaller independent brands now emerging seem to be more forward-thinking and open to being part of the solution. One crucial aspect is that they are much more able to build a relationship with the consumer based on honesty, which it seems is finally in fashion. Our digitally advanced lives do put us in the firing line for more advertising from consumption-driven brands, but it also means that we have masses of information readily available to us when we want to answer these questions. Great news… well, not for Nestlé, Oatly and H&M et al.