Does Conscious Consumerism really work?

‘Conscious consumerism’ is on the rise. According to data analytics company, Neilsen, 2018 is ‘The Year of the Influential Sustainable Consumer.’ This term was based on the rise in ‘sustainable’ purchases over the past year(s). Sustainable product sales reached $128.5 billion in 2018, up 20 percent from 2014. In 2017, the globe spent $9.32 billion on green cleaning products alone. 

As consumers become more aware, they're choosing to spend their money on things that are sustainable and with companies that uphold the same values that they do. In turn, more 'sustainable' and socially conscious companies are gaining moment in the markets.

But are these labels and good intentions actually doing anything good for the planet or society? Are businesses just cashing in on people’s good intentions by marketing themselves as ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ or ‘organic?’ Are these labels any more than just rhetorical terms used to distract us from real action?

I did some digging into these terms to see what they actually entail and what actions we can take to truly be more ethically and environmentally responsible with our hard-earned cash. 

 What is a ‘conscious consumer’?

In 1975, Frederick E. Webster, Jr., one of the first researchers of the phenomenon,  described a conscious consumer as “a consumer who takes into account the public consequences of his or her private consumption or who attempts to use his or her purchasing power to bring about social change.” He wrote this for the Journal of Consumer Research.

The concept of a conscious consumer has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t stepped into the foreground of popularity until lately. 

People are being more aware of their consumer habits. That’s awesome. But is it helping?

Does conscious consumerism really work?

This complex question has, of course, many different answers. The truth is that every action has consequences and many times we only see a short-sited reality of what we’re doing or believe we’re doing. For example:

  • We may feel we’re doing something good by taking our used clothes to a thrift store rather than throwing them away, but the reality is, less than one-third of those clothes will get sold. The rest will probably end up being dumped in somewhere like Haiti, which can be bad for local economies. Our free or cheap clothes may take jobs away from local seamstresses. 
  • We think that buying a fuel efficient car has helped us save money and the environment, but with the extra money we save we buy a plane ticket that neutralizes our efforts. 
  • We think because we meticulously wash all our plastics and put them in the recycling bin that we’re being responsible with our plastic consumption. But less than 10% of the plastic in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste stream actually gets recycled. 

We have so many sides to consider when we’re looking to see the consequences of our actions. Really, to get a clear look at how well conscious consumerism works, you need to be more specific with the question of ‘conscious of what?’ For the sake of this article, we'll be looking at conscious consumerism to save the planet. We're facing major climate change. Can we shop our way into a green future? 

*Note: There are studies that prove that boycotts to encourage societal and political shifts do affect corporations and promote change! 

Conscious Consumerism to Save the Planet aka ‘Going Green’

No, ‘going green’ and choosing to buy sustainable products is not going to help save the planet. 

Why? A few reasons. 

First off, usually, the good impact we have by choosing green products is off-set by our other buying decisions, resulting in a wash of our efforts. A 2012 study showed no meaningful difference in footprint between self-identifying green-consumers and regular customers.

Secondly, to make an actual dent in the carbon-footprint consumerism has on the environment, we’d all have to start making more sustainable buying choices and that’s just not the reality. As Halina Szejnwald Brown, professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University, said in an interview for this Quartz article about ‘sustainable buying choices’, “It’s a gesture. Well-meaning signals that you care about the environment. But the action itself makes no difference.“

Thirdly, ‘conscious consumerism’ inherently involves consuming, which is the root of the problem. America and the world’s obsession with constant economic growth (which equates to a constant increase in consumption of goods) as a measure of well-being is what is putting our precious resources at risk in the first place. We’ve put ourselves in a corner by creating a society and market that success depends on infinite growth when we have finite resources on this planet.

Brayden King, the Max McGraw Chair of Management and the Environment at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told WellandGood recently, “Buying sustainable products may feel virtuous, but it doesn’t make much of a dent in the real problem. The business model is based on getting consumers to keep buying products. And the more they buy, the better, because then the company can grow, and that’s good for shareholder value.”

This is not to say that we should just give up and start supporting businesses that have no morals. It is to say that we need to rethink our model of consumption and perhaps set our sights on more important, bigger picture action plans. 

What can we do to really enact change?

1. Use your money to support initiatives targeting bigger issues. 

Instead of spending your time checking out every label at the grocery store or spending more money ensuring you’re only buying sustainable products, consider getting a bit more involved politically and aim your power at bigger sites. As sustainability-expert Alden Wicker wrote for Quartz, “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.”

2. Vote. 

Instead of using your precious time reading labels and researching sustainable companies, take some time to get political. Learn about the politicians that care about the environment and what they’re doing to fight for change. Then go and vote for them. Neilsen found that 90 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for eco-friendly and sustainable products, but in the 2016 presidential election, only 46.1 percent of people aged 18-29 voted and only 55 percent of them voted Democrat. This isn’t an exact 1-to-1 comparison, but if young people voted at the polls the same way they use their dollar to vote, our world might look a LOT different right now.

3. Don’t buy sustainable products. 

“The idea of ‘shopping’ your way to sustainability is fundamentally flawed,” Emily Huddart Kennedy, University of British Columbia sociologist and author of Putting Sustainability into Practice: Applications and Advances in Research on Sustainable Consumption told Vox recently. “That is, if we need to slow down growth to protect the environment, then we can’t rely on ‘better’ consumption — we also have to reduce consumption.” Start switching up your programming and start looking to downsize your buying habits. Much of what we believe we need to have is not really a need--it’s a systematically prescribed need by marketing companies. 

Ideas on ways to buy less:

Shop used-- All products that are bought new, even if they’re made sustainably, are still accounting for new production. Shopping at used clothing stores or for other used products helps keep these products from landfills and other dump sites while reducing your footprint. 

Mend, don’t throw. Start mending clothes and fixing things that are broken instead of throwing them away and buying new things. 

Clothing swaps. Instead of taking your old stuff to Goodwill (where it will probably never be bought) to make way to buy new things, host a clothing swap with your friends.

Closet reshuffles. Take your favorites out of your closet and hide them for six months. Force yourself to wear the stuff you usually skip over. You’ll probably figure out cool ways to wear the stuff and remember why you bought it in the first place. If you don't--then bring it to the next clothing swap to trade out. 

Upgrade your iPhone every 4 years instead of every 2. Sounds crazy, but why are you getting rid of your phone when it still works fine? Because the market has taught you that's the way it works. Electronic waste is the world’s largest growing solid waste stream. Not to mention the mining needed to produce electronic products is extremely dangerous and often done by children laborers. 

4. Use the money and time you save by not shopping to support legislation and organizations that make a difference.

Some examples:

-Donate to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff from our rivers

-Donate to politicians who support policies that keep our air clean

- Volunteer for an organization that combats food deserts or for one that creates food forests

-Call your local representative and demand that they overhaul the approval process of the some 80,000 untested chemicals in our foods.

5. Support carbon-tax. 

As King told WellandGood, “We need to look at ways of reforming the economy. We have to incentivize businesses to create carbon-neutral products and services. Until we have options that are not just based on the business model of grow-and-spend, we’re not going to get any real change.” Creating a carbon tax would help reflect the true cost of products, taking into account the environmental effects. A worldwide carbon tax could help push us towards carbon-neutrality faster than conscious consumerism ever could. 

6. Figure out your biggest carbon footprint indicator and tackle that. 

Using the EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator, figure out your estimated carbon footprint. Then, take action on the thing that has the biggest impact. Instead of investing time in changing small stuff that doesn’t have a big impact, maybe you can take a huge chunk out of your impact by changing one big-hitting thing, leaving you with more time and money to spend supporting activism groups. 

7. When you buy, buy from B-Corporation companies. 

To be a certified B-corporation company, a company must prove its dedication to environmental, social, and governance issues. Patagonia, a brand famous for creating quality goods, promoting repairs, and having its own secondhand store, was the first B Corp company. You can check out a full list of these companies here.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, because of the way our global economy is set up, we’re going to have a hard time changing much solely as consumers. Yes, where and how we spend our money is important. Some actions and investments have further-reaching effects than others. It's not a matter of doing everything, it's just a matter of taking steps on the things that will have the biggest impact. 

Ways Dylan is doing its part to be ‘conscious’. 

Dylan recognizes that we’re making a new product. That being said, underwear is one of the products that is hard to get away with buying used or keeping forever because of the intimacy and regular use of it. In terms of impact, we try to keep our footprint as small as we can by making products that

  1. Last a long time
  2. Are made by hand, locally
  3. Utilize recycled materials
  4. Don’t require dyes or bleaching

Read more about our production process>>>

What you can do to make your Dylan purchase even more sustainable:

  1. Buy in bulk--if you buy more than one dylan product at once or pair up with a friend for shipping, the shipping footprint is reduced
  2. Buy in person--sometimes we have events and pop-up shops where products are available for purchase. If you're in the New York area, DM us @dylanunderwear to find out where our next pop-up site will be and cut out your shipping footprint

Written with love by Kristen Koester-Smith of, providing copywriting and storytelling for brands of integrity. 

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