Photo credit: Jon Tyson

My favorite TV show is The Good Place. For anyone not familiar, the premise of the show is that the actions you have on Earth during your life are ranked in a points system, and after you die, your calculated points determine whether you go to the Good Place or the Bad Place. Today I want to talk about conscious consumerism, and I think that’s best embodied by the following quote from the show:

“In 1534, Douglass Wynegar of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her house, she was happy. Boom… 145 points.

In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop, the flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint.”

One of the main takeaways from The Good Place is that the world is big and complicated, and doing the right thing often isn’t easy or obvious. In general, to be a conscious consumer is to be aware of what you buy and use, and the impact it has on the world. It sounds simple enough, but as illustrated by The Good Place, it’s not. The line from production to consumption is full of twists, turns, and knots. Let’s see what we can unravel!

Learn some of the terminology

Photo credit: Phil Aicken

One glance in a grocery aisle and you are bombarded with buzz words that all sound like good ideas: all-natural, fair-trade, organic, cage-free, green, local, no GMOs, superfood, antioxidants, pasture raised and many more. The catch is that some of these terms actually mean something when it comes to the standards of the food, and some are just marketing ploys. To learn the terminology of the packaging is like trying to decipher a different language, but it can be worth it if you really want to know more about where your purchases come from and how they impact the world you live in. Sometimes I just stand there for a minute googling, and there is no shame in that.

Invest in higher quality

If the jeans are half the price, but half the lifespan of the more expensive pair, have you really saved money? Fast fashion is a rapidly growing issue. Things are made cheaply, wear out faster, and are destined for the garbage can even sooner. Finding the money up front to invest in something is a legitimate challenge, and I do not fault anyone for sticking to a budget. However, when it comes to finding affordable quality, there is a tried and true method: buying second-hand.

Buy second-hand

Alliance staff, John Montgomery, sporting his favorite second-hand jacket that has lasted him over a decade.

My phone, car, and some of my favorite clothes were owned by other people before they were owned by me. Not only is this friendlier on my budget, but part of it was for my own conscience. Once I became aware of some of the dangerous practices that go into some smartphone production and recycling, the idea of owning a brand-new device made me feel uneasy. A second-hand product also means that my footprint is smaller.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but also Refuse, Repurpose, and Repair

My freshly darned sock

Last month one of the high-quality wool socks I owned developed a hole, so I taught myself how to darn. From looking up the first YouTube video to having a completed patch didn’t take long. The materials to fix the hole were far cheaper than replacing the sock. To be self-sufficient and have personal investment in my material possessions is something that has provided me with a feeling of satisfaction that no impulse purchase has ever come close to. I try to be mindful about what comes into my home, and as such, I take care of the things that surround me.

Look beyond the product itself

Sure, it says it’s made from recycled school buses or whatever, but how much plastic packaging is it wrapped up in? Did it have to travel thousands of miles to get to the store shelf? How well does the company treat its workers? That singular product does not exist in isolation, and neither does your purchasing power.

Divesting when it doesn’t align with your values

I recently learned that the credit card companies I have accounts through don’t have good track records when it comes to their practices. They invest in environmentally damaging projects and they have some predatory lending practices among other things. I first opened those cards when I was young and one company was pretty much interchangeable with another from my inexperienced perspective. But now that I know more, I want to make some changes in how my money flows. Those companies don’t deserve my business, but there are others out there that do!

Recognize the manipulation present in marketing

Folks who work in marketing are really, really good at what they do. They’ve tapped into the human psyche and they use our basic needs and desires to sell us products we don’t always need. I don’t blame them, but I do advocate that we be aware of it. This is some of the “conscious” part of conscious consumerism. Being aware of this when we’re presented with a beautifully designed ad, it’s great to foster the little voice in the back of our head that reminds us that they’re showing us what they want us to see.

Close to home is a good place to start

The literal fruits of a recent shopping trip to my local market

The rise in globalization is partly what led to this complexity of being a conscious consumer, so consider removing some of the global aspect. Buying and consuming local goods means that not only do you remove the potential impacts of things like the greenhouse gas emissions of transportation, but you also are investing money in the businesses that make up your community. We will always be a global society (there’s no turning back on that now), but we can also be a locally invested community.

There is no one easy button to make a conscious consumer decision. Beyond that, there is never one clear cut, right or wrong answer to the choices that present themselves. An organic product might use a ton of water, or the new, unsustainable cookware set comes from a factory that treats their workers very well. If you read this whole article looking for an easy solution, I’m afraid I don’t have it (although I do recommend you start by looking up B Corporations). Conscious consumerism is about navigating a labyrinth, except there are holes in your map and someone’s tied your shoelaces together.

Does my current consumerism exist at the exploitation of the planet and other people? Well… yes. If you reflect on your own consumer choices and feel uneasy, there is recourse! Small changes over time and magnified across a population do drive change. Remember how the whole world banded together in the 80s and 90s to reduce CFC use and save the Ozone layer. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean we can’t try and make a start!

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou