It is hard not to think about the current state of affairs around the world. From terrorism to politics, sustainability to climate change, the wide range of information at the tip of our fingers, makes hard to ignore what happens in the world around us. Perhaps that explains why we watch so many cat videos and produce so much content about how to apply make-up.
If we knew each other in person, you would likely hear me criticising consumption and capitalism at least once in a while, and likely roll your eyes at me, thinking it is all a bunch of hippie talk.
So let me start with my own journey through conscientious consumption:
Don’t get me wrong, my level of consumption is far from perfect. I buy electronics that were produced using rare-metals that are over-mined in China. I buy non-organic clothing. I buy processed food. This post isn’t about how perfect or imperfect my habits are, it is about recognising where we are at and where we need to get to.
Although I always considered myself to be a moderate consumer, the last two years have been important in educating me and bringing me closer to the root of my consumption behaviour. Most importantly it helped me see that what I considered a moderate buying behaviour was extremely harmful to the world around me and ultimately to myself.
Like many, I started my discovery journey passively. Working in merchandising for a large fashion house, I was confronted by how clothing was produced many times, so that’s where I started digging first.
After watching a couple of documentaries, reading blogs and going to a “better-fashion” conference, I started uncovering the harm our clothing production practices were causing. Fast-fashion, a new concept introduced by big players such as H&M and Zara revolutionised the industry and increased profits radically. Although this represents great success in capitalist terms, it creates huge environmental and ethical problems around the supply-chain.
The discovery journey that started in fashion has been growing wider since. As a scientist, I am very interested in the environmental and health aspects of consumption. But as a human, I am particularly interested the socio-political aspect of it.
I have spoken about critical thinking before, but this time I would like to apply the same concept into how we purchase.
How can you start your journey into conscientious consumption?
Take a moment to look at the world around you. How the chocolate bars are displayed at the counter of your local shop, the design of the packaging of your groceries, the position of those boots in your favourite online shop, the advertisements on the sidebar of your e-mail etc. Everything is designed to appeal to your impulsive nature. In the tech world, UX designers and data scientists sit behind a screen analysing and designing and optimising to get you to buy more.
But many of the things we desire wouldn’t be so appealing if we didn’t have personal aspirations to be perceived in some specific way. That is why the media feeds you with stories of perfect lives. “If only I had that…” is the feeling perpetuated day and night, and because that is what is spoon fed to you, you start to really feel like you need to have something in order to be fulfilled.
To supply the volume needed to bring the economy to new highs, mass production is vital. In order to maximise profit margins retailers need to cut corners. From raw material sourcing to manufacturing, cost and timing are all that matters. This model of mass-production isn’t pretty. And that is why production must be dissociated of the end-product.
Anytime you walk into a store, or a supermarket, the clinically designed experience aims to dissociate the products from their origins. After all, most people would never buy that steak or that half-price bag if they understood how it was really produced. Be it for animal cruelty, human rights, carcinogenic chemicals, hygiene or environmental reasons.
That is why critical thinking becomes our most powerful weapon. In a society that is appealing to your most basic, impulsive instincts, at the lower levels of your hierarchy of needs, stopping and thinking is in fact an act of rebellion. It doesn’t take much, but it poses moral and ethical questions about how you want the world and society around you to be structured.
The next time you walk into a store or log into your favourite e-commerce, use the following thinking framework:
- What do I want/expect to achieve by buying this?
- Am I being influenced by media to desire this?
- What does the supply chain for this product looks like? (materials, production, distribution etc)
- Where are corners are being cut?
- What is the impact of this purchase? (financial, environmental, emotional etc)
Now decide for yourself if this is something you are willing to back up with your hard-earned money. Your consumption power is your voice in a capitalist society. It’s the most basic market law of supply and demand. Business will always try to influence demand, but if you avoid those influences, business will pivot to follow your cash.
So… hack the system, start thinking 😉