In my book, Easy Green Cleaning, I dedicated an entire chapter on the importance of conscious consumerism. What I realized I didn’t do in the book, however, was tell people exactly how to become a more conscious consumer. That is why I am writing this article, to give people a breakdown of what it means to be a conscious consumer. This post will also serve as a step by step process on how to become one.
This article contains a lot of information that is helpful when becoming a more conscious consumer. It is meant to serve as a reference guide. This is something to bookmark and come back to, not to be overwhelmed by thinking you need to do everything at once. Go at your own pace, and do your best based on what is important for you in your life.
What does it mean to be a conscious consumer?
A conscious consumer is someone who makes purchases based on their values, not solely on their wants and needs.
Why is conscious consumerism so important?
Voting with our dollar is the strongest vote we have. Companies will not make changes to produce fewer chemicals and treat the environment and their workers better unless the people who purchase their products demand it! The rise of conscious consumerism leads to the rise of conscious capitalism.
This is not about buying 100% of your products consciously. It is about purchasing more of your products consciously. It is far more impactful for a majority of the population to do better than it is for a small number of people to be perfect.
If you are interested in having a positive impact on the world with your purchases, the following five steps will help you in having an impact.
Step 1: Choose Your Values
It is up to you to choose what your values are, although I sure do my best to persuade you below to think about values that might reflect your beliefs. Choosing to support your individual values is an important thing to do for your growth and development.
Below I list some examples of values that you may choose to take into consideration before making purchases. Figure out your most important value and use it as a starting point to guide your future purchases.
Health: Do you care if the products you purchase are harming your health and the health of your loved ones? So many of the everyday products you purchase are harming you and your family’s health and you may not even realize it. Most conventional products you purchase, ranging from your personal care products to your kid’s pajamas, are riddled with carcinogenic chemicals. Our food industry has not done us any favors in this area either. From filling our farmland with toxic pesticides to genetically modifying plants and processing our food with a multitude of unnatural ingredients.
Environmental Impact: Many of these products that affect our health are also affecting the health of our planet. The manufacturing process and the disposal of most conventional goods are polluting our soils and waterways and filling our landfills with unnecessary trash. The abundance of our consumption habits leads to serious issues like creating a toxic eco-system, deforestation, and accelerated climate change.
Human Rights: Does it matter how the workers that are making your products are treated? Sweatshops and child labor are common manufacturing processes that seriously impede basic human rights, yet so many of our everyday products are manufactured via those means. Affected workers typically endure unsafe working conditions, excruciatingly long hours, and pay way below a livable wage. These practices may lead to cheaper products but at what cost?
Animal Rights: Do you think it is fair that a little bunny lives its life in captivity, being smothered with a barrage of chemicals just so you can try out a new lipstick or cologne? Do you feel it is healthy to eat animals that spend their lives in small confined spaces with no room to move, eating an unnatural diet while being pumped full of antibiotics and hormones? Not only is it not healthy, it is not necessary for you to eat animals that were treated this way. Whether you make the decision to consume animal products or not, the animals utilized in our food industry deserve to be treated better.
Quality and Sustainability: “Built to last” is no longer a thing. Built to breakdown is the new motto companies are secretly going by to make sure that we continue the need to purchase from them on a consistent basis. Choosing items based on quality is more affordable in the long run and reduces unnecessary waste. Caring about the life cycle (how it was made and where it will end up) and sustainability (resources used to create it) of a product are important measures to becoming a conscious consumer.
Economic Impact: Who are you choosing to make rich with your buying choices? A majority of businesses we are familiar with are actually owned by a small handful of larger parent companies. It is important to understand who is getting our money and the impact our buying choices have on global economics and their contribution to inequality. According to this article by globalissues.org, 59% of the world’s resources were consumed by the wealthiest 10% of the population. The poorest 10% of the population accounted for just 0.5% of utilization of the world’s resources. As consumers we spend far more money on ice cream, perfume, and unhealthy habits (smoking/drinking) than what would be needed to give basic necessities like education, clean water, and food to developing countries.
This video excerpt comes from the documentary ETHOS hosted by Woody Harrelson.
Step 2: Pick Which Products to Switch
Now that you’ve thought about the values that will help define your purchase decisions, it is important to pick the products, or product category that you would first like to focus on purchasing more consciously.
For most people, trying to do everything at once is intimidating, so start with what is most doable for you. Prioritize progress over perfection when making shifts in your life. My advice for the biggest impact is to pick products or product categories that you purchase most frequently. For most people those are regularly purchased household goods, personal care products, and food.
Create a list or spreadsheet of the items you purchase routinely. Then, put a star next to the items you would like to replace first. To make it easier, those items should be the items that are not your most holy grail/hard to live without products. Start in the areas it will be easiest for you to make changes to.
Figure out which products you would like to switch to as replacements, and make sure the products you choose to replace hit your values. Don’t let this process overwhelm you. Start slow and remember once you find a replacement you can just keep purchasing that same product.
Step 3: Play Detective and do Research
The type of research you do will have a lot to do with the values you choose. Below are some ways to research products based on your values.
You will want to get an idea of what products to research that look like they may be suitable replacements for the items you starred via your list in the last step. The best way to acomplish this is to start looking online for keywords around the product and keywords for your top values. As an example, let’s say I want to purchase a lipstick and make sure it is cruelty-free and more natural. Do an internet search using terms like ‘lipstick’, ‘cruelty free,’ and ‘natural.’ See what comes up and read the reviews. Pick a few that look like they are worth investigating further. As an alternative, you can go to your local store and look in the lipstick aisle to see if any of the lipsticks are labeled cruelty free and natural. Make sure you check into the product further before purchase.
Now that you have some idea of possible replacements it is time to dive into more research.
Check Toxicity Levels: Check the Toxicity rating of your personal care products either via a search on EWG’s Skin Deep Database or the Think Dirty app. Search the toxicity rating of your cleaning products. Figure out which produce items are most important to buy organic by checking the Dirty Dozen (uses the most pesticides) and Clean Fifteen (uses the least pesticides) list.
Find the parent company: What company makes that product and who owns that company? Not all companies have a parent company but many do. A simple online search will tell you this. You can find this information by typing in ‘who owns’ and the company name. For example, if I type in ‘who owns Seventh Generation,’ a very popular eco-friendly brand, it shows that Unilever now owns Seventh Generation. So now that I know who really gets my money, it is time to do some detective work on them.
Dig for dirt with a search: Once you know the parent company (or lack thereof) it is time to do a search on the company itself. Good things to look for are the Wikipedia page, to see what types of info it gives you about the company. In this case it does have a Wikipedia page and the page has a section that shows their Environmental Record, which is not great. You can do individual searches by typing in the company name then putting buzz words like sweatshop, animal cruelty, environmental impact, contribution etc. Once you get the data you need, you can decide if this is a company you would like to support. In this example, you have the choice of not purchasing Seventh Generation because you do not agree with the choices of their parent company or to continue purchasing Seventh Generation to reward Unilever for purchasing a more eco-conscious brand by showing my support.
There is no right or wrong answer here. It is up to you based on your values. Do you choose to support big business still if they decide to make changes or do you want your money going to smaller more sustainable companies?
Look at labels: Always read labels when you do shop for items you are not familiar with. There are a lot of issues around truth in labeling so it is important to know what to look out for as not everything needs to be disclosed. The label may not say ‘genetically modified’ if it contains GMOs but it will likely say Non-GMO Project Verified if it doesn’t. Other labels to look for that will help retain your values when purchasing are Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Cruelty Free, Green Seal, and Energy Star. If you choose to eat animal products, look for labels like Certified Humane, Grass Fed, Pasture Raised, and Organic.
Check for certifications: You can also look for products with certain certifications that show healthier and more environmentally friendly practices. Examples of this are Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle, and Made Safe. These websites can be great places to find products you want to support.
Care about materials and packaging: Are the materials the product made out of coming from more environmentally friendly, renewable, and sustainable materials? Is the packaging it comes in recyclable and/or is the packaging made out of recyclable materials?
What is their social impact: If they do something positive for society, most companies will advertise it in some way on their product or website. There are many companies out there to do social good, so find a few that are in line with your values. Another good thing to look for when looking into companies are B Corporations. B Corporations are for-profit companies that are certified to meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
Step 4: Purchase Consciously
Now that you found products that fit your values, start purchasing those new items.
The good news is that often picking one set of values, like making sure your personal care products that are not full of toxic chemicals, will flow through to other values, like the products being cruelty free and better for the environment. Though I want to stress that this is not always the case. Picking products based solely on the fact that they are cruelty free does not necessarily mean they are better for the environment or your health.
Build it into your budget: Yes, buying higher quality items that are better for your health and the environment can cost a little more. Whenever you purchase an item that is cheap, you always need to question who and what needed to suffer for you to save a few bucks. The important thing to remember when becoming a more conscious consumer is to purchase more wisely. Could you trade a few dinners out to buy more organic food? Could you swap your expensive face cream for a more natural one? Being more conscious about what you purchase will save you a lot of money in the long run by not having as many impulse buys and by purchasing higher quality products.
Set a goal: Set a goal around conscious shopping you feel is something you can attain. Example: Switching to one more consciously sourced product a month.
Thrift more: One of the top ways you can be a more conscious consumer is by purchasing more items from second hand shops. For me, most of my favorite outfits and purses have all come from consignment shops. You can buy so much more than clothes. You can purchase furniture, books, electronics, and appliances, and the list goes on. This is a great way to buy high quality at a low price. In addition, a lot of thrift stores donate their proceeds to a good cause.
Use more reusable items: We have become such a throwaway society that our planet is having a hard time sustaining us. Ditch the one use items as much as possible in place for items that can be reused.
Other ways to purchase consciously: Go to farmers markets, buy produce seasonally, care where your products are manufactured so they have better labor practices and support your local economy.
Step 5: Tweak and Repeat:
Go through your list of items you created in step one until you feel confident in the items you have started to purchase consciously. I like to aim for an 80/20 approach. That means at least 80% of purchased products are consciously sourced. The remaining 20% can be made up of products that are harder to switch or source consciously. As you continue to get more information regarding ethical consumption, have your buying choices reflect that and grow with you.
Buy less but still buy: For conscious consumerism to truly be effective and support a healthy society, it is important to shop less but still shop. The rise of minimalism is great. It shows how much excess people have and how much less we can actually live with. However, don’t underestimate the need to still purchase items to sustain a healthy economy. Just make sure you have a balance, and start questioning the items you purchase more.
Consider Donating: Maybe skip an occasional latte or ice cream cone and consider donating that money to a charity like Action Against Hunger. One of the top rated charities for leading the global fight against hunger.
Spread the message! For conscious consumerism to be successful it takes the majority, not the minority. Do what you can to get this message out there on how to become a more conscious consumer. There are sharing links below to make it easy to share on your social media or email to friends.
Thanks for reading this guide and doing your part for a more conscious world!
“People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos, is because things are being loved and people are being used.” ― John Green, Looking for Alaska