BY OLIVIA DWELLEY
As consumers every decision we make, makes a statement. We become statistics that show executives how customers are trending toward one thing and not the other. These statistics, in turn, influence the products and services that businesses continue or fail to continue to produce and provide. Especially for the millennial and Generation Z, where we get ribbons and trophies for simply participating in an activity, the motto has become that we can make change happen. It’s encouraging to see large movements where everyone is coming together in support of one cause and gaining attention for said cause, but how can we enact change on a smaller, everyday scale that can still have a large impact?
One of the key takeaways from a Sustainable Business Strategies course that I recently took while studying abroad in Copenhagen was that as consumers we make a statement every time we buy something. By purchasing an article of clothing on a whim in stores like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara we are supporting the entire fast fashion industry by encouraging the continuation of production as is.
Let’s hop in a time machine, you’re back at your school’s 5th grade book fair and you’ve earned 10 tickets to exchange for small prizes. The first few prizes are eye-catching glittery pencils, worth 1 ticket each. You spend 2 tickets to receive one glittery blue pencil and one glittery green pencil, and move along to the next table with 8 tickets in hand. Next, you see 2 ticket prizes: monkey head erasers (these were big in my elementary school) and a pen with interchangeable ink. You hand over 4 tickets, so you can get an eraser and a pen. You have 4 tickets left and your hands are full of cheap goodies. At the final table awaits the holy grail of prizes, a dog-shaped pencil sharpener, worth a whopping 5 tickets. You count and recount your tickets, hoping another one magically manifests so you can afford the pencil sharpener. But alas, you keep coming up 1 ticket short, because you spent the tickets without considering saving them for a better, albeit, more expensive prize. Had you surveyed the options first, you probably would have spent your tickets differently.
This scenario is still relevant in being a conscious consumer today for two reasons. The first is that you are limited by the amount of tickets (money) that you have and you must decide where you want to spend it. Yes, there’s a quick thrill from the cheaper goods, at Walmart $20 can buy you 10 cheap things that will last you a week or two. If you had thought ahead of time about what you wanted, you might have spent your money differently. And while the amount of material things you could have ended up with would have been less, you’d have a more valuable product. Inadvertently, you put your money toward a product that was most likely cheaper to make, and was probably mass-produced in an industry that may or may not have agreeable ethics throughout its supply chain. How else do you think a t-shirt is $3?
The second relevancy is that in the long run, the more expensive prize probably would have been a better investment. That 5 ticket pencil sharpener would have maintained the pencils you already had and would have lasted longer than those pencils anyway, as its product life span is longer than that of the other prizes. This is similar to all of the items we purchase, whether they are clothes, cars or kitchen appliances. We often go for the immediate ease of the ‘more affordable’ option, which either needs repairs in the future or replacement. We balk at the outrageous prices of things that are advertised as sustainably made or higher quality or ethically produced because the idea of spending 40 more dollars on a pair of jeans is just not appealing in the moment.
As a consumer I want to know that my investment is going toward an industry built on ethics and sustainability. By defining sustainability as a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” one can see the impact sustainability can have on future generations.
We often see advertisements to donate to a worthy cause and sometimes we’re encouraged enough by social media trends to donate to save an endangered animal or help after disaster has struck. We often don’t acknowledge that we can donate to causes, or refuse to donate to causes with which we don’t agree, in our everyday consumption habits. By consciously investing your money in a brand that has strong supply chain ethics and cares about sustainability, you are making a statement.
It’s also important to note that another way in which you can refuse unethical consumption is by buying things second hand. By buying from thrift stores and second hand places you are extending the life of a product that otherwise would have been thrown out. Some brands even advocate for extending product life and recycling materials.
Knowing how and where things are made, or extending the life of a product by not buying it directly from the seller, you make a statement that discourages unsustainable and unethical companies from continuing with business as usual.
This isn’t a shift that can happen overnight, current consumption patterns have become ingrained in our capitalist society. But with more awareness and knowledge we can become more conscious consumers in order to support causes that resonate with us.
It starts on a small scale. Next time you’re about to make an online purchase (or even trying on clothes in a store dressing room), google search “ COMPANY NAME” BUSINESS PRACTICES or ETHICS. Information is available on practically every company’s business practices and ethics. Give conscious consumerism a try, and maybe spend your money a little more ethically.