​​​​​​​Consumer Activism: Is it possible and what’s the alternative?

You can find endless articles, thinkpieces and blog entries much like this one about the myth of the ethical shopper, whether organic food is really better for the environment, and the effectiveness of boycotting sweatshops. Sifting through to find real, substantive information about how to make tangible change with the things you consume challenging and exhausting, and is it even worth it?

Ethical consumption is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years. In high school, we learned about big bad MNCs like Nike (particularly rousing since I went to school in Beaverton where many kids’ parents are under their employ) and read books like Fast Food Nation about the evils of McDonalds. In college, we learned that buildings consume nearly 75% of the electricity in the US and every lecture seemed to remind us of our onus as architects to protect the world from imminent climate change by designing better buildings. The passion of my educators about these issues lit a fire in me, and I was committed to making changes in my life and dedicating my education and career to sustainability. I went vegan, I refused to buy clothes that weren’t second-hand, I tried giving up my car for a bike (an ultimately failed endeavor), and I wouldn’t let myself buy coffee unless I remembered my reusable cup.

As I’ve grown older, of course, I’ve recognized that the reality isn’t quite so straightforward. In a globalized, capitalist economy, consumer activism and ethical consumption on an individual level is often something that makes us feel good rather than a means to enact significant change. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, which makes the actions of individuals seem small in comparison.

This can be a tough reality to face when we’re bombarded with articles about how we’re out of time to act on climate change and directly causing the sixth mass extinction of life on earth. It’s hard to avoid feeling discouraged. We want to do something. Naomi Klein argues that we must destroy capitalism in order to make any real change about the climate. Others have more practical approaches. Eco-lifestyle guru Alden Wicker suggests that instead of fretting too much about small consumer choices, it's better to use that time and money toward direct action:

[...] when it comes to combating climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, what we need to do is take the money, time, and effort we spend making these ultimately inconsequential choices and put it toward something that really matters.

Globally, we’re projected to spend $9.32 billion in 2017 on green cleaning products. If we had directed even a third of that pot of money (the typical markup on green cleaning products) toward lobbying our governments to ban the toxic chemicals we’re so afraid of, we might have made a lot more progress by now.

On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.

Does that mean that attempts at ethical consumption and consumer activism are meaningless? In my opinion, no, so long as take we are cognizant of the fact that buying local produce and remembering our reusable grocery bags is never going to amount to a substantive change to our current climate trajectory. Instead, these actions have value in keeping the environment at the forefront of our minds in our everyday lives and allowing us to adjust our expectations about convenience and the way we use things. If you are thinking about where your produce is sourced, you’re probably more likely to show up to an environmental protest in your community. It’s easy to ignore climate change when we don't yet see much impact on our daily lives and making daily efforts toward individual environmentalism helps to combat that. It keeps us present and engaged in the issue. The real danger is complacency, both in allowing ourselves to believe that our individual conscious consumer actions are enough, and in believing that because individuals do not have the power of major corporations and political entities, that any efforts to save the planet are hopeless. Neither of those things is true—we still have time to act on climate change if we act in the right way. Doing what we can, however minimal the impact, is a lot better than doing nothing.

There is also value in collectively shifting our priorities away from consumerism and consumption. When you are invested in the environmental impacts of something you buy—where it was sourced, how far the materials in it have traveled, how the workers were treated producing it, the practices of the companies manufacturing it and its components, where it will go when you’re done with it, etc.—you’re more likely to question whether you really need or want it at all, and reducing consumption is the most direct means of lessening your individual impact. A collective shift in our attitudes about consumption and overall assumptions about what we "need" does have the potential to snowball into a greater, stronger movement, and small changes in our habits do add up.

If you are concerned about the environmental and ethical implications of your current lifestyle, your goal should not be to simply become a more ethical consumer. Your goal should be to transform your relationship to your consumption habits so that you can consume less and have the time and energy to be more present in affecting tangible change in the issues you care about most.

Harka’s mission is to provide “low-carbon lifestyling.” We are not merely talking about replacing your existing habits and products with more eco-friendly alternatives, but rather transforming the way you think about how you live in the world to improve your own quality of life, lessen your environmental impact, and allow you to be more connected with the world around you.

This is a challenging undertaking but ultimately worthwhile. Our goal is to explore the ways to make it happen.