19 min read

How to Be a Conscious Consumer

How to Be a Conscious Consumer

There are two seemingly contradicting realities of “conscious consumerism”:

  1. No matter how “consciously” we buy, we aren’t going to shop our way into a more sustainable and equitable world.
  2. The ways we do/don’t spend our money are incredibly impactful.

Maybe this is confusing at first glance, but it becomes clearer when we explore what conscious consumerism is on the individual and collective level.

“Consuming consciously” is INCREDIBLY important. It’s my belief, though, that it’s important in ways that we might not first think.

Sure, seeking out the “sustainable” product option might be better for the planet (most likely, less worse 😬).

But, I don’t think we should “consume consciously” in pursuit of the idea that a bunch of little choices add up to make a big impact! Being more mindful about our purchases, being more mindful about what we consume is about much more than that.

How/what we consume is a statement about what we believe and affirm is good.

It’s about what values we put above all others.

It’s about which systems and structures of power we support. And, which we choose to reject.

In this post, with the help of Aja Barber, fashion consultant, stylist, and writer, we’ll explore the nuance behind “buying better,” how we should define conscious consumerism, and offer tactical steps as to how you can do so yourself.

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I recorded a full interview with Aja Barber on how to buy less, buy better, and end consumer culture. We also discuss her book, Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.  

You can listen to/watch that here.

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What is Conscious Consumerism?

Before talking about ways to consume more consciously, let’s make sure we’re on the same page as to what conscious consumerism is by sharing a definition. [1]

This is a definition that I’ve arrived at after 3+ years of speaking with hundreds of members of the sustainable business community. I have become intimately familiar with the groups, associations, and certifications: B Corporations, Regenerative Organic Certification, Fair Trade, 1% for the Planet, etc.

I’ve also assessed countless products for their degree of sustainability, for our work with our Buy Ensemble Directory, as well as making more intentional buying decisions in my everyday life. I’ve even gone so far as to write a 3,500-word manual detailing how I measure sustainability.

So, on to our definition.

Conscious Consumerism — Definition

“Conscious consumerism is the practice of mindfully and intentionally buying and using products as a statement of values. The opposite of conscious consumption is mindless consumption.

Consuming consciously is about the intention behind buying and using.

It’s about being clear on what you do/don’t need to buy or use. It requires taking a pause and making the effort to understand how a product is made, who it was made by, and what might happen to that product at the end of its useful life, and then returning to the question of whether you need to buy or use it.

Consuming consciously is a daily habit, from whether to buy another pair of shoes and from where, to whether it’s worth watering a lawn during a historic Texas drought or even worth having a lawn at all, for example.

Those decisions we make impact much more than our own personal footprint. That’s certainly a valuable consideration, but what’s more valuable (I’d argue) is how our conscious decision-making can influence others.

A few years back, researchers found what they called “neighbor effects” on solar system installs in residential neighborhoods. This means, once one neighbor takes the leap in getting their home outfitted with solar panels, other neighbors take note and are more likely to follow suit.

Likewise, if you decide to buy the latest Nikes, your neighbors (your social circle in this case) are more likely to make comparable purchases.

So, whether or not you think the purchase you’re making or sustainable lifestyle change you’re considering is worthwhile, consider how it can influence others around you.

Of course, the concept of conscious consumerism isn’t perfect. You can’t always make the perfect decision. It might be difficult to even know!

We also can’t deny, better options lead to better decisions.

If you don’t have an electric vehicle (EV), and you probably don’t (only 1% cars on the road in the US are EVs), then you (like me) feel like you’re forced into doing a deal with the devil every time you pull into a gas station to fill your tank.

But it’s important to note, while 99% of Americans currently don’t drive EVs, recent research has shown that nearly 25% of Americans want their next car to be an EV, with many more teetering on the edge.

Why is there a mismatch in the desire vs. reality? Most cited objections to EVs as reported by AAA:

  • Higher purchase price – 60%
  • Concern there are not enough places to charge – 60%
  • Concern about running out of charge when driving – 58%
  • Unsuitable for long-distance travel – 55%
  • High cost of battery repair or replacement – 55%
  • Unable to install a charging station where they live – 31%

Most, if not arguably all of those stated objections to EV adoption are based on the options available. If there were cheaper EVs, more people would buy them. If cities/counties built more charging stations, that would maybe eliminate four of the six!

This is why in the short term, the $4,000 – $7,500 tax credit included in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will be very helpful to push many consumers over the edge to electrifying their own transportation.

Now, with an understanding of exactly how we might define conscious consumerism and of how this concept fits into the greater picture, let’s talk a little bit about why we might have the challenges of consumer culture that we do.

I thought Aja had a nice way of putting it.

Where Does Consumerism Come From?

Aja Barber: I feel like there’s not enough good information out there for people about what it looks like to actually live your values, especially when it comes to what we buy.

So much of consumerism is really so embedded in our culture. And I think we tend to tie consumerism to our identity because there are so many signs within our society telling us to do that.

It’s in our media.

I talk about films and how cult classic films, particularly the ones that are geared towards young women, always involve some sort of makeover scene where a character who’s treated really poorly by society undertakes a makeover that involves a lot of clothing, maybe a haircut.

And then all of a sudden people that were mean to them aren’t mean to them anymore.

That’s in so many films.

Pretty woman, Princess Diaries, Mean Girls.

When you see an idea that’s portrayed so many different ways, you do start to internalize it. For example, this idea of retail therapy.

Buying things is not therapy. Therapy is therapy.

Attaching buying things to our idea of therapy and healing ourselves is arguably part of the reason why we’re in this mess.

But also I think the culture of America has consumerism woven into it. Our politicians certainly encourage that.

There’s this idea that you could support the economy by buying things from a multinational corporation that probably doesn’t pay its taxes.

19 profitable Fortune 100 corporations that reported they will owe little orno taxes for 2021 | Source: Center for American Progress

There are so many different ways that we’re signaled that buying things makes you a good, upstanding citizen.

After 9/11, George W. Bush definitely told us to shop. 2

Rishi Sunak said a few short years ago, if you had savings because of the pandemic, you should be spending it on the economy.

Rishi Sunak, I think is, if not a multimillionaire, a billionaire. 3 So no, Rishi, maybe you should just be taxed higher. I’m going to keep my money because I’m not as rich as you.

So, there are all these signals within our society that are just like, “Spend your money on things you don’t need because that’ll make you happy.”

Additionally, I think we’re facing such monumental problems that sometimes the only source of power that we feel is buying things.

We don’t feel in control of the climate crisis. Our politicians are pretty laughable these days. How many recessions does one person have to live through? Most people cannot buy houses because it’s really hard.

So when you’ve got all these things going around and you’re just sort of like…I guess I’ll just go and buy this dress from H&M.

I totally understand, but we have to find ways to harness our power differently.

It doesn’t have to be scary, but it does look like all of us starting to care and caring looks like buying less because we’re all buying a lot of clothing and it’s really unnecessary.

Caring looks like supporting better businesses, particularly if you can—not everyone can—but the average consumer is buying 68 items of clothing a year 4, which I would argue we’re spending quite a lot of money.

So maybe we could just do less, but spend a little more and feel good about our purchases?

There are a lot of different solutions and it’s acting at your intersection because we know that not every solution works for every person, but there are solutions out there and it’s time for us to get our head in the game.

Aja’s points are poignant. Conventional status signals, at least in the US, come with a significant price tag.

Home prices have skyrocketed, costs of education (especially at the most prestigious universities) are unreal, and the best-selling car in the U.S. is an F150 truck which on the low end starts at $40,000.

Who can afford all that? Financially or otherwise?

At the same time, what’s to be expected from a culture in a country whose main metric of success is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? We’ve accumulated a laundry list of shopping holidays, and consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of our GDP.

Let’s continue on to talk about how we can combat consumer culture and as Aja says, “harness our power differently.”

7 Ways to Be a More Conscious Consumer

I’ve previously made mention of what consumers can do to challenge businesses to become more sustainable, but I think a few of those strategies are worth mentioning again here.

Together, with Aja’s suggested strategies, here are a few things we all can do to be more conscious consumers.

#1: Check Your Own Consumption

Aja Barber: We always have this conversation in the space that I’m in, the individual versus the collective, but we actually need the individual action so that we can get our head in the game to change things at a collective level.

If everybody is just consuming like normal, then no one will be inspired to hold anyone to account. I know how that is. I was that person.

So, you know, you as an individual need to think about how you participate in this system. Are you the person that buys 68 items of clothing a year? Be honest. Because everyone likes to say, oh no, that’s not me, but that is a lie.

Someone is buying the clothing. And when I was in my twenties, it was definitely me, you know?

Being honest with who you are and where you fall in the system is really impactful.

📝 Cory's Note:

As mentioned earlier, it’s valuable to remind ourselves that the decisions we make do have an effect on others. It’s not just about the carbon emissions. It’s about the culture we can deconstruct and rebuild.

Something is out of sync if we’re calling for action on climate change because of the severe drought but at the same time filling up our swimming pool because we’re trying to beat the heat.

In the instances where something might be easier said than done (like the solar panel install or EV example above), one person building a plan of action and pushing through where there’s resistance might make things easier for someone who has yet to make the same commitments to the cause of sustainability.

We also feel better when we make decisions that are more in alignment with our values. And there’s a similar impact in the opposite direction as well.

The more choices we make that at the end of the day don’t feel in alignment with who we feel we are, the more we’ll face internal struggle. There’s a reason that one of the regrets shared in the wonderful book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, was not living a life that was true to you.

If you value things like sustainability, human rights, etc., you’ll feel better the more your actions (including daily purchases and use) align with those values. Again, it’s difficult to make the most ethical choice every time, but that can’t excuse not trying. It’s important for our well-being to get more of those decisions “right” than wrong.

#2: Do Your Due Diligence

We can’t all spend the whole day researching what might be the most sustainable or ethical pair of socks to purchase, although, doing a little digging can go a long way.

Likewise, every time you head to the grocery store you’re forced into making tons of micro decisions as you select different products from the shelves.

For a quick look, consider if the company/product carries any certifications. Granted, certifications aren’t a perfect way to assess a company’s social/environmental stewardship, but they are signals that we can pay attention to, especially when making quicker decisions.

Here are a list of certifications to look out for that might signal a company’s commitment to ethics and sustainability:

  • Regenerative Organic Certified
  • Fair Trade
  • Certified B Corporation
  • USDA Organic
  • Climate Neutral
  • We Are Neutral

With more time available to you, it’s worth visiting a company’s website and seeing how well they document their social and environmental efforts. This is particularly important (and doable) when you’re a repeat customer.

For example, visit WhereYourClothing.com from TS Designs, a screen printer we’ve mentioned before, you’ll see names, addresses, and responsibilities from every person involved in that supply chain.

Example of supply chain transparency from Where Your Clothing | Source: Where Your Clothing

Likewise, if you were to check out my friends at A Good Company, a Swedish sustainable e-commerce company, you’ll see extreme detail as to where and how their products are made and the exact environmental impact.

I’m positive I’ve spent significant time on over 1,000 company’s websites to do product research in the past. If you do this like I have, you’ll notice there is a wide spectrum in which companies commit to the practice of transparency.

Example of agood company’s transparency for their mobile case factory | Source: agood company

Some companies might say “sustainably made” but not show you what they mean by that. Others might say their manufacturing partners abide by the “highest labor standards” but not show you who their partners are or where in the world they are located.

We do have to approach a business’ claims with healthy skepticism. We must demand that companies show, not just tell us how sustainable or ethical they are.

Complete transparency reveals all. And lack of transparency reveals something as well.

#3: Push for Systemic Change

As discussed previously, better available options and greater accessibility, leads to better decisions. As Aja adds here, it’s worth understanding the differences between the individual and systemic action and knowing where we can put pressure on.

Aja Barber:  Start to really understand who needs to change and put pressure on those corporations to change.

This is a great way to talk about systemic action.

What people will understand is that your polyester clothing is made of plastic and it leaks microfibers every time you wash it. And the microfibers go into the ocean, they go into our water supply, they get in your food. They found microfibers in a human placenta last year. Grim.

So we need to stop the flow of microfibers from going everywhere.

And part of that is looking at the washing cycle. There’s a washing machine bill that’s being argued in Parliament that every washing machine sold in the UK should come with its own microfiber filter.

Currently, if you want to do something about microfibers, you have buy into that as a consumer.

You can buy a filter for your washing machine, which then you have to pay someone to install it.

You can get a guppy bag, you can get some little ball things that collect your microfibers, but wouldn’t it be great if on a systemic level no one could buy a washing machine that didn’t have a microfiber filter since this is clearly a problem?

Yes, we do need to stop virgin polyesters from being created.

There’s more than enough polyester to go around on this planet, but one short-term solution is making sure that we’re filtering that out of our water supply.

So there’s things big and small happening…[and] getting involved in those conversations, getting more information about that, that’s a good thing to do at the systemic level.

📝 Cory's Note:

We need to find the balance between our individual action and seeing opportunities to push for systemic change.

Conscious consumerism won’t save the world. We need to follow up our own meaningful purchasing decisions and lifestyle changes with the push to change the system.

We must come to terms with the fact that there will never be 100% support for more sustainable living. If we continue to make any level of environmental stewardship voluntary, we’ll never move over to having 100% electrified vehicles in the United States.

For some reason, some people will never, ever make the change. That’s why we’d need to push for the systemic change of phasing out combustion engine cars completely.

I’m convinced some people just don’t like change. And others have financial incentive encouraging them to resist any/all change.

If all cars were electric and we were stopping at charging stations instead of gas stations would people really miss gasoline? Fossil fuel execs might, but would the average person? I don’t think so.

#4: Support Culture, Not Companies

Do we want to live in a world run by Amazon, Starbucks, or Walmart? Or do we want to live in a world that supports billions of expert craftspeople, chefs, musicians, artists, educators, and artisans?

I believe that supporting small businesses, artists, and artisans creates a much more interesting, diverse, and rich culture.

When you travel, do you eagerly hustle to find the closest Starbucks or Target or do you look for local coffee shops, restaurants to try, bookshops, and boutiques?

I’m guessing the latter.

If that’s what you find interesting, perhaps even want more of in the world, shouldn’t your purchases support that?

I think this also speaks to the importance of buying local. Support the efforts that make the community one you want to travel to and live in.

Seek out and support the small businesses, indie stores, and artists. Our communities and cultures will stay more interesting because of it.

Aja Barber: I talk about buying local, buying small versus buying from a big box store. Studies have shown that when you buy something local, particularly within your own community, more of that money is gonna stay within your community. 5

Source: Loyola University Chicago

Where if you’re purchasing from a big box store, only a small percentage of that is going to stay within your community. We all like strong communities.

What do we get from strong communities?

We get good schools, we get good places for children to grow up. We get places where we can blossom. So there’s so much in thinking about all of these systems that makes a lot of sense for people to be invested in it because it’s not just good for the planet, but it’s good for us as well.

#5: Use Your Voice

In addition to enriching culture, small businesses are also far more accountable.

Have you ever spent time on the phone with an airline/insurance company/medical provider/etc. and heard something to the effect of, “Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t make the policy. That’s just how it is.”

It’s incredibly frustrating.

You might be on the phone with the kindest, most patient support person in the world, but they have no power to change American Airlines’ refund policy, or whether that medication is/is not covered by your insurance, or explain why you are being charged $500 a day for a bed in the nursery when your baby never stayed in it. 6

Could you get a hold of Jeff Bezos if you had a problem with Amazon?

I don’t think so. But it’s still well worth considering what sort of platform we have available to us to speak out.

So, while we’ll spend more of our time supporting businesses we deem sustainable and accountable, I think Aja adds something nice in here from her personal experience, with attempting to get larger brands to respond to calls for change.

Aja Barber: If a corporation is doing something that pisses you off, be loud about it.

Let them know. This is where social media is great. You can actually force a corporation to apologize for something if you get enough people just being really vocal about it.

I’ve done it before with H&M with my friends. We’ve thought that H&M was being very misleading about something and so we just spammed them in their comments and eventually they did apologize and that feels very, very powerful.

#6: Buy Secondhand, Buy Better

This, I think, speaks to the purest example of consuming consciously. Just buying with more intention.

It’s worth thinking about the balance between what do we need and what do we want? What’s necessary or enough and what’s really just frivolous when we get down to it?

Consuming consciously means thinking deeply about the use of what we might acquire and likewise thinking about things like whether it’s even necessary to buy it new in the first place.

Plainly, buy consciously. Whatever that might mean for your particular context.

Aja Barber: If everyone just bought a few items secondhand, instead of going new, that would have a huge impact on the waste stream. We’ve got so many great places to do it. 7 It didn’t use to be as accessible, but it is.

And then people sometimes will ask, “If I buy second hand, am I displacing someone who doesn’t have money?”

No, that’s a myth because the fashion industry actually pumps out 150 billion garments a year. 8 The human population is only 7.9 billion. So there’s actually more than enough clothing to go around already on the planet.

Now, when people say, “Secondhand is becoming gentrified,” what they really mean is there’s less good quality because of fast fashion.

That’s really it. There’s more than enough clothing, but the quality has definitely gone downhill.

And once again, at a consumer level, we have the ability to change that in who we support and who we give our money to.

Before you buy it in the store, ask yourself, “Is this going to last me a hundred wears? If I don’t want it will someone else?”

And I think we all know deep down inside when it’s a t-shirt that’s paper thin and has like a silly logo on it, or that’s some weird inside joke…no, no one is going to want that.

So maybe we need to start thinking about whether or not the item sparks joy while we’re still in the store, instead of thinking about after we’ve brought it home and it’s in our house.

#7: Combat Consumer Culture, Find What’s Right for YOU

Consumerism is driven largely by advertising and a pressure to fit in. We follow trends because cultural momentum (and advertising campaigns) push us to. We started smoking cigarettes because the Marlboro Man told us that was cool.

We’ll buy whatever the latest and greatest is without consciously considering the impacts of those purchases or likewise, if we even want them!

It’s much easier to not get swept up in the current of consumerism, if you have confidence in YOU.  Understanding more deeply what you like, value, and want out of life can make thoughtful and deliberate purchases and lifestyle choices much easier.

While this started with our point to Check Our Own Consumption, it’s important enough to dive deeper here.

I appreciate the perspective Aja offered to this point.

Aja Barber: Unpick consumerism within you. Unpick the idea of lack and need and want and desire. I did this thing where, when I was of an age where I was dreaming about having the career I have today, I thought about what amount of money I needed to lead a really nice life.

I’ve always told myself, if you can make that amount of money, then the rest is gravy. And once you realize the things that you need, and for me, it’s enough money to support myself, to have a beautiful life, to be generous and kind with loved ones and to treat people, that’s really all.

I want to be able to take a holiday every now and then, but this idea that, “Oh, I want to own a sports car and a helicopter….” Who needs that stuff?

So I think unpicking this endless desire to make all the money can actually really free you because you realize you don’t need all the money. And once you get to that point, it also gives you a level of integrity in your work where you can say no to the things that don’t work for you.

When you have the power of saying no to things and you’re able to maintain your integrity, you’re able to do a lot of really, really cool things.

So unpick the desire of constant consumption, whether it is greed, money, big houses, and ask yourself what it is that you truly want, not what it is that society tells you you should want.

But what do you want out of life?

Because once you can actually fulfill your own needs, you can do incredible things with what’s left over.

And once you do, you might find that you’re left being a much happier person.

Consume Consciously, Consume Happily.

While a limited reservoir of power, what we buy and what we use makes an impact—for better or for worse.

It can impact us personally, affecting how aligned our decisions feel with who we are. It can impact our neighborhood, showing others around us what is possible.

As we choose to consume more consciously, buy less, buy better, or use just what we need, we’re choosing to cast votes of varying potency for the world we want to live in.

What will you vote for?

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1. If you’re interested in more of the history behind conscious consumerism (where it originated, how it’s trended over time, etc.) you can read an article we published a while back at GrowEnsemble.com.

2. On October 11th, 2001, George W. Bush addressed the nation where he said “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our Nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.” This clip is found in the CSPAN archives.

3. I found estimates. of Rishi Sunak’s net worth at 730 million pounds, or currently, near 830 million US dollars.

4. I wasn’t able to replicate Aja’s exact figure, but I found as of 2018, US consumers were on average buying one new garment per week, totaling roughly 53 per year. Still, a lot. (Source: Common Objective).

5. I found few different studies that confirmed the large majority of dollars spent with a locally owned business (more or less 70%) will stay with the community vs. the majority of dollars spent with a non-locally owned business (more or less 60%) leave the local community.

6. This happened to Annie and me with the birth of our son, Owen. 🙂

7. In addition to the thrift stores we are all familiar with, check out Helpsy or Patagonia Worn Wear, for example.

8. Multiple sources report different numbers here. The World Economic Forum reports that near 150 billion garments are made each year. The True Cost ,for example. reports 80 billion garments are made per year. Regardless of the exact number, it’s ridiculously high—more than enough for every person on the globe, even though we know the vast majority of those garments are purchased by those living in the Global North.

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