How to be a Conscious Consumer

Pretty much on the daily I feel a bit of guilt about the impact that I have on the world. Sometimes all that refusing of carrier bags and turning off of lights seems a bit futile compared to everything else that I and others do to harm the planet. Whilst the growing trend for zero waste living, tiny homes and minimal impact diets are absolutely fantastic, they’re not always practical right now. I love the idea of opening a shop that’s half zero waste bulk store, half Planet Organic/Wholefoods, but that’s hardly going to happen in the near future. Almost all my shopping has to come from the supermarket, which means plastic. Sometimes I forget to bring a reusable coffee cup. And I’m sure, no matter how hard you try, much of this applies to you too. So for when the zero waste life isn’t quite possible, I want to talk about be a conscious consumer.

conscious consumer

Whilst conscious has started to become one of those annoying wellness buzzwords, one of it’s dictionary definition is:

“Having knowledge of something; being concerned with a particular matter”

So effectively, conscious consumerism is being aware of the impacts of what you buy. Back in March, Quartz Media shared a rather disheartening article about how aiming to be a conscious consumer and care about what you buy is almost worthless in the big picture. The author argued that small efforts to only buy and used ethically, environmentally friendly items made no difference in comparison to systematic change on a national level. However, I still think that the individual actions of many builds up to have a big impact. Plus, the more of us that think about living in a more environmentally friendly way, the more likely we are to want systematic change.

By now, most of us know the basics: walk or use public transport over cars; switch off lights and gadgets when not in use; try not to use too much water… I’m sharing a few more tips to update how you think about consumerism, which should hopefully still be realistic next time you go food shopping, or looking for some new clothes to buy.

Recycling isn’t a free pass

How many times did you hear the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle!” chanted at you ten years or so ago? Now try five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. In that order. If you say no to something like a flyer or a freebie you don’t really want then you don’t have to worry about how to deal with the subsequent waste. I think a lot of the time we see something in packaging and say “Oh, it’s recyclable so that’s okay”. Recycling can actually be pretty inefficient, and usually the new product, particularly with plastics, is of a lower quality than the old. Eventually, the plastic will have been recycled so many times that it has to go to the landfill. So treat it as the last resort other than rotting. 

Buy better, buy less

I’m usually happy to spend a slightly scary amount on leggings because I know that they’ll perform better and probably last longer than their cheaper counterparts. Leggings perhaps aren’t the best example, as the microfibres that shed off them every time they get washed are said to be the new microplastics, but you get my drift. Whilst I didn’t manage to find my dream wool coat second hand as hoped, I did spend a fair bit of cash and am expecting it to last me years. I definitely still cave into high street buys occasionally, but I’d usually rather save up and buy one nice thing. Buying more durable materials may cost more initially, but the item will last much longer. Second hand is also a great option: be prepared to rummage and have to try things on more than usual, but it really is amazing what you can find. Depop and eBay are great online tools, but you can even look to doing clothes swaps with friends.

Reduce packaging and plastic

When you are buying, it really is worth having a double check to see how much disposable stuff comes with the item. If you are purchasing a larger item or from an independent shop, it might just be worth seeing if they can not wrap your new buy in quite so much packaging, or if they’re allowed to reuse it. For food, grab loose vegetables and fruit, pack your own lunch and bring cutlery. Of course, whatever we buy already has a footprint before it even hits the shelves, but making sure that the final part of the process is as waste free as possible is usually an achievable step.

Use your sustainable choices to initiate discussion on being a conscious consumer

If someone comments or compliments you on something that embodies conscious consumerism, capitalise upon it. Be it a turtle bag, second hand jacket, reusable straw, explain your choice behind using a sustainable product. What seems like second nature to you might be completely new to someone else. These conversations offer the opportunity to share more sustainable alternatives without sounding preachy.

These tips aren’t particularly ground breaking but are easy to adopt, and realistic. When complete zero-waste minimalism isn’t an option, be reassured that living more sustainably doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Taking steps to be more conscious about when you do have to (or want to!) make purchases can help to minimise your footprint, normalise sustainable behaviour and make such behaviour second nature to you.