My response to Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world, by Alden Wicker, for Quartz.

I like much of what Alden had to say, but not all of it. As I read through her blog post, I couldn’t help but feel like she was leaving too much on the table; too much of an oversimplification.

If I had to take a stab at her thesis statement, it would be: “Individuals are too small to have an impact, so we must instead support organizations that advocate change.”

I am a consultant who focuses on sustainable business practice through waste prevention and reduction methods and agree that far more can be achieved through policy changes than individual action. That being said, we need individuals to be the advocates for the change they want to see in the world. If no one demands change, it will never come.

Here are selected statements from the article with my responses:

For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.

I agree with much of this statement. Clothes are so cheap to the point that they are disposable. If a newer style comes out, or a garment is in need of a minor repair, we toss it. Our old clothes and promotional shirts from races and one-time events have gotten to be so pervasive that Goodwill reports only reselling about 40% of the garments they receive locally. Everything else is sorted by quality, smashed into a hay bale style block, then shipped abroad to be turned into a rag or sold for pennies on the dollar. Buying thrifted clothes doesn’t support companies that are actually producing clothes responsibly, and often just makes the donor feel good about themselves; it supports their fast fashion.

What this statement fails to do is put any responsibility onto the consumer to make the right decision. Rather than donating a blouse that is still in good condition, the original owner she wear it down until it is no longer wearable. I, for example, just stitched up two pairs of jeans that had split at the crotch, which, as you all know, is a weak point in most pants. Yes, it took time do to this, but extended the life of those jeans, saving me money, and reducing my impact.

There’s also the issue of privilege. The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—and it most certainly is.

Yes, there is privilege associated with purchasing ethically made items, but it doesn’t take privilege to take care of and repair, as needed, the items that we do have. If anything, it is that privilege that makes us feel justified in over-consuming. Donating an old item in usable condition to make way for something new is both privileged and irresponsible.

Take plastic water bottles, for example. Plastic, as most of us now know, is made from petroleum that takes hundreds of years—or maybe even a thousand—to biodegrade (scarily, we’re not really sure yet). Shipping bottled water from Fiji to New York City is also an emission-heavy process. And yet, despite the indisputable facts and the consistent campaigning by nonprofits, journalists, and activists to urge consumers to carry reusable water bottles, bottled water consumption has continued to rise—even though it costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.

How is this the fault of Capitalism? Yes, many people are mislead into purchasing bottled water. Logic and common sense, however, should indicate that bottled water is a false luxury good and waste of money. At what point do we take the burden off of “the Man” to make good decisions and place it back where it belongs, in the hands of individuals?

We’re working ever-longer hours, which leaves little time for sitting down to home-cooked meals, much less sewing, mending, and fixing our possessions.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We work more hours to buy more stuff. I know from experience that consuming less is a far more effective strategy than earning morning.

Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.

My background is in supply chain management, which is a process-based philosophy. I agree with Alden that too much decision-making is left to the consumer, when it is already too late. Supply chain experts, instead, believe that a broken foundation leads to bad results. That being said, writing off the consumer isn’t good either. Trying to convince someone who only consumes organic products that they should purchase non-organic items instead so that they have more money to donate, is like sharing with a vegan the benefits of eating grass-fed beef.

Alden’s entire post is available here:

Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world

Please comment with your thoughts? I am curious to know your take on this. Am I missing the mark?



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