What lies behind the new wave of ethically minded consumer behaviour, and is the sentiment really up to the task of improving the world? Conscious consumerism relies on unconscious influences and assumptions.
Post-industrial globalisation and the rise of the internet has turned consumers of the world into virtual neighbours. The products we use don’t respect national boundaries and are increasingly ordered online. The scale of personal interactions has led to an unprecedented global sense of awareness. Unlike the world peace movement of the ’60s, a reaction to the political dehumanisation of World War Two and the conflict in Vietnam, this new movement is set against the backdrop of global capitalism and consumerism with invisible crimes and casualties.
Ethicist Peter Singer illustrates the difference by comparing the aircraft that smashed into the World Trade Centre with keys being turned in the ignitions of American SUVs – a single, dramatic event that killed thousands versus a series of small events that add up over time and eventually lead to many more deaths. He argues that both warrant urgent response.
The realisation that our daily lives and habits leave an indelible impact on the world came into focus from the flow of information provided by the internet and other mass media, and it has seeped into our collective unconscious. Astronauts have described a similar cognitive shift when viewing Earth from space, where national boundaries and conflicts give way to an overwhelming impression of being citizens not just of cities and states, but of the world.
The overview effect
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty.” – Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14
This heightened awareness of the world has made the environmental cost of consumerism everyone’s burden, raising questions about responsibility and sustainability on both supply and demand side.
“Modern wine consumers – especially but not exclusively millennials – are concerned about sustainability, health issues and artisanal production,” wine writer Michael Fridjhon says. “In short this means minimal chemical use in the vineyard and cellar, a full list of the ingredients which went into the production of the wine, and craft rather than industrial production methodology.”
Suppliers have owned their corporate responsibility as consumers increasingly hold them accountable to be transparent about their processes and footprint on the environment. The new generation of consumers is asking tough questions, La Motte CEO Hein Koegelenberg says. “Supporting local business and entrepreneurs creates jobs and supports growth from local communities,” he says. Muratie marketing manager Desmond Binneman agrees that loyal customers tend to hold suppliers to a higher standard than before and see brands as an extension of their own values.
Making a difference
To be effective, solutions have to be organised and systematic. Simple rules of thumb help consumers coordinate their habits into a groundswell of sustainable behaviour. For instance the “Buy local” slogan helps support local businesses and small-scale entrepreneurs which decreases reliance on mass imports and large commercial operations. Other common mantras include “Think globally, act locally”, “Vote with your wallet”, and “Reduce, reuse, recycle”.
While these approaches may be empowering and inspiring, for the most part consumers simply can’t afford to stray too far from their daily routines and the familiar shopping aisles packed with products offered anonymously and cheaply.
A Sisyphean task
Taking into account it’s mostly the more cosmopolitan and affluent consumers who both care and are able to afford the higher premiums on products that don’t benefit from the economies of scale mass production allows, researchers have been asking whether individual consumers can be agents of change. Aren’t these simple formulas just rituals designed to soothe the conscience rather than doing the hard work of structural improvement?
When sustainable lifestyle writer Alden Wicker was invited to speak to the UN Youth Delegation about eco-friendly consumption, he surprisingly declined the invitation. “Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers won’t change the world,” he says. He maintains capitalism is simply not set up to give consumers real power, citing a study that compared the ecological footprint of “green” consumers who tried to make eco-friendly choices with the footprint of regular consumers and found no meaningful difference between them. Other research indicates individual conscious consumerism is doomed to fail since the economy revolves around maximising and taxing household consumption.
The power of incrementalism
On the other hand, some global health trends such as organic farming and vegan options have gained traction from producers and consumers motivated enough to start a movement and those who cared enough to follow them. They give consumers space to become champions of a world they’d like to live in. When consumers are consistently eager to see a change and express their feelings through effective channels such as NGOs and lobby groups, producers and policymakers must take note.
The same globalised world that has supported the phenomenon of global awareness also supports the mechanisms and feedback loops that make social change possible. Demand in one part of the world can powerfully influence processes and decisions in another. Scandinavian demand for organic and biodynamic wines has for instance stimulated supply elsewhere because their customers can afford the luxury. As more producers and consumers come on board, this eventually drives down prices and stimulates further innovations.
We don’t have to wait for dramatic challenges such as counterfeiting and climate change to force urgent reforms in transparency, traceability and sustainable vineyard practices. Big breakthroughs can come from small conscious steps. In the globalised economy, incremental improvements can eventually make a difference.