To make sure everyone is on the same page before we go any further, here is a short definition of conscious consumption by Kristin Wong from the NY Times:
Conscious consumption is an umbrella term that simply means engaging in the economy with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society (and environment) at large.
I’m attaching a link to a comprehensive guide at the end of this article that explores the topic more in-depth.
When we start learning how to consume more consciously, it can be a bit daunting, mainly because every human activity leaves a trace, whether we talk about the environment, society, or even the economy.
What I’d say is important to remember is the following:
- It’s not only up to consumers to clean or solve the environmental, social or economic mess our society is going through; the change and improvement needs to start at the very beginning (at ideation and production level);
- As consumers and human beings, we have the power to enforce positive change through voting, creating laws to extend producers' responsibility or changing our habits and behaviours.
This is the journey I picked for myself.
Where to start?
When I started learning more about what can I do to lessen my impact, few questions came to mind:
- Where to start?
- Can a single individual make a [real] difference? Yes.
- What is the actual scale of my consumption impact? How to get the idea of its scale through visualising it?
By coincidence, a colleague of mine lent me a book called ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic.’ While the book talks only about plastic pollution, it provides a great way to visualise the amount of waste you accumulate. So I told myself why not start looking at the waste in our household.
Using a simple experiment the author proposes, I map out the type, amount and sources of waste that end up most often in our bin.
You don’t need to go to such an extent. I thought it was a good exercise to visualise ‘the after effect’ of my purchase decisions. Plus, I had to do it only once. I saw where most of my waste comes from (food shopping) and how to make some quick changes to reduce it:
- Have a reusable bag ready in my bag or backpack (always)
- Get or create a couple of produce bags to replace plastic ones
- Shop mostly at markets to avoid unnecessary packaging (I still don’t understand the purpose of a single wrapped piece of paprika)
- Replaced water bottles and soda with tap water (if you live in a city and have a luxury of drinkable tap water, it could be a good way to go)
- Occasionally buy in bulks or go to stores with refill stations (these stores are unfortunately on the other side of the town)
- If possible, avoid buying ready-made dishes (not all the plastic is recyclable, and if then only a tiny percentage)
- Have a shopping list ready to buy only stuff we need
- Bring my own ‘to go’ mug to my favourite café; they even offer you an incentive in the form of a discount
- Freeze, store or give away excess food, so it doesn’t go to waste
The result after few months was great. The amount of waste decreased, including the one suitable for recycling. We now take the trash out every 3 weeks compared to every week in the past. It might not save the planet, but it is a good step forward.
One of the biggest game-changers was to abandon food delivery. Below is a description of the packaging used per one meal order:
1 paper bag, 4 paper napkins, 1 paper wrap for a burger, 1 paper bag for fries, 1 paper tray for fries, 1 paper/foil bag for corn, 1 paper tray for corn that could be only quarter of its size.
The majority of the listed items cannot be recycled. Instead, they will end up in the landfill. Note: The paper contaminated with grease is not recyclable.
Sometimes I get lazy or crave a meal I would not cook myself. So, I slip. But going from 2–3 orders a month to one order every few months was an agreeable strategy.
However, stop using food delivery won’t solve the problem. So what could we as consumers do to enforce some positive change?
Provide feedback: Write a review, send them a suggestions. Ask the company how they encourage restaurants to become more responsible? What do they do to make it happen? While it’s a more complex problem to solve, if we don’t start holding companies accountable and require change, who will?
Making responsible choices (may) cost you
Groceries, cosmetic products or household items produced responsibly will often cost you more. You should be ready to pay for the actual costs of labour and resources used, at least for now.
It is easier said than done. Simply because we all have different disposable income, family or life situation (a parent with a single income), or else. And there is an abundance of cheap products available.
The issue we as a society still need to solve is to make a conscious consumption affordable for everyone.
The good news is, you don’t have to be a millionaire, not even a hundred-thousandaire. I’m not. In many cases, I turn to online resources for inspiration.
- Zero Waste on Reddit for minimising waste
- Too good to go for minimising food waste
- Olio for giving away food, share household items and more
A good thing to remember is that conscious consumerism does not mean throwing out everything you own and replace it with brand-new, eco-labelled, organic products.
To give you the simplest example: Do you need to buy a new reusable, fancy bag that costs $20, or you already have a bag you can keep using over and over again?
Reduce and reuse
Being a conscious consumer is about what type of products we buy or how they were produced. It’s also about how much we buy and why we buy.
- What is the purpose of ‘an item I’m buying’ in my life? For how long will I be using it?
- How can I repurpose things to prolong their life or give them a second chance?
- Do I need all the things I own, or I own them simply because I have money to purchase them?
- Do I let trendiness guide my shopping choices? Or do I make purchase choices on my own while being true to my values?
How often do you give the things you own a second chance? I mean, as long as they are not falling apart.
I truly admire my dad because he has an amazing skill to give house appliances a second chance to live. Most recently, he built a completely new vacuum cleaner reusing parts from two older ones. Yes, some parts had to go to waste, but the majority of them got reused.
So what is a way to move forward?
Keep breaking the known or familiar habits and encourage good ones to reduce your impact on the environment.
Keep educating yourself. I don’t always agree with widely-accepted mantras like eating locally is best for the environment. Everything has its pros and cons.
And remember, what matters equally, if not more, is extending the significant degree of responsibility for the environmental, social and economical impact of products to manufacturers and importers.
At the end of the day, how big of a change can we achieve if we, e.g. cut down on food delivery orders to reduce ‘post-dinner waste’ on our side, but food delivery company or restaurants won’t do anything to minimise the single-use packaging on their side?
This is the point where your consumer voice and right to vote comes into play.
What is conscious consumerism:
Research and data site on some of the world’s largest problems: