How to Be a More Conscious Consumer, Even If You’re on a Budget (Published 2019) (2023)


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Most of us financially support companies we might not necessarily support socially, ethically or philosophically.

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By Kristin Wong

Farai Harreld was pregnant with her daughter when she realized it was time to downsize. She and her husband had just purchased their first home, which was significantly smaller than their rental.

“I was shocked that at 25, we had already amassed so many possessions, and I struggled to make room for them,” said Ms. Harreld, co-founder of Black Minimalists. “So I made the commitment to be more present and mindful in the choices I made when spending my hard-earned money.”

It’s easy to accumulate stuff, even without much money. As sociologist Joseph Cohen has said, “America is a place where the luxuries are cheap and the necessities are expensive.” But from the rise of minimalism to companies making bold business moves in the name of sustainability, there’s been a push for more conscious consumption. According to Nielsen, sustainable product sales have increased by nearly 20 percent since 2014.

But what, exactly, do we mean here? Phrases like conscious consumption, sustainability and social responsibility are often used synonymously, but some of these phrases have carefully measured definitions, while others are a bit looser. Conscious consumption is an umbrella term that simply means engaging in the economy with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society at large. Shopping sustainably, with the intent to preserve the environment, is one way to consume more consciously.

“It is constantly financially challenging for us as a one-income family, because ethically made goods cost a lot of money, as they should,” Ms. Harreld said. In an effort to minimize her own ecological footprint, she shops secondhand, uses cloth diapers and buys shares in her local C.S.A. Doing your part might look entirely different, but there are some straightforward ways to be a more conscious consumer, even if you’re short on time and cash.

Look for B Corp Certification

The goal of sustainability is to reduce your ecological footprint, which is a measure of how fast we consume resources and generate waste compared to how fast the planet can recover from our habits. And while Fair Trade Certified companies have to meet a certain set of standards, a company can say their products are “ethically sourced” or “artisan made” without having any certifications or standards to prove it — it’s up to you to find out what that means.

All these definitions and standards can be confusing, so a non-profit group called the B Lab created a way to measure a company’s social responsibility. Certified B Corporations are legally required to “consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment,” according to the organization’s website. “B Corp companies must undergo a rigorous measurement of a company’s full E.S.G. commitment,” said Rick Ridgeway, vice president of public engagement at Patagonia, which become the first B-Corporation in 2012.

E.S.G. — which stands for environment, social and governance — measures a company’s commitment to reducing environmental impact and supporting social justice as well as their governance and engagement within their communities. The B Lab has an entire online directory where you can browse certified companies in different industries.

Learn more about your favorite brands

Instead of trying to research every single company you financially support, which can be overwhelming to the point of apathy, focus on where you spend your money most.

Review transactions in your budget or bank statements to see what businesses you regularly shop at, then do some research. You can start with the B Lab’s directory, and if the business isn’t listed, there are other tools that can help you learn more about your favorite brands, businesses and companies.

Websites like Good On You, Done Good and Project Just tell you where a company stands on issues like labor conditions, material sourcing and waste. At Open Secrets, you can look up which campaigns and charities a company has contributed money. It’s worth periodically checking in on companies you like, too, as their efforts can change. Fast fashion brand H&M recently vowed to use 100 percent recycled or sustainable materials by 2030, for example.

Research your investments

You might be investing in companies that don’t align with your values or beliefs and not even know it. If you have a 401(k) at work, or some other type of retirement account, big news: You’re investing!

Most retirement investment portfolios are made up of mutual funds, which are groups of investments in a number of different entities — namely, companies. And it’s pretty easy to find out which companies you’re invested in. If you have a 401(k) at work, for instance, reach out to the department that handles it for help (likely it’s H.R.). Otherwise, check your account online. Navigate to “holdings,” where you’ll see list of funds that make up your portfolio. You should be able to click on the fund to find out more information, including a list of its holdings, or companies that make up the fund.

Unfortunately, if you find a company you don’t want to support, you can’t just remove it from the mutual fund, according to Arianna Savant, former head of product at an impact investing platform.

“Essentially everyone who buys into that mutual fund has to all have the same underlying share,” she said. It’s hard to pick and choose the companies you want to invest in if you have an employer-sponsored retirement plan or invest in mutual funds on your own. Impact investing is a good compromise, however.

While regular investing just focuses on return — how much your investments will grow — impact investing considers the social impact of the companies you support, too. “It’s investing with the aim of making a difference alongside earning a financial return,” Ms. Savant said.

A common misconception with impact investing is that your investments won’t be as valuable over time. “It’s definitely a misconception that in order to invest in a way that social responsibility you have to sacrifice on the returns,” Ms. Savant said. And there’s proof: The Economist recently reported that sustainable funds outperformed the broader market in the U.S. during a major downturn.

Reduce your footprint

The term carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gas, specifically carbon dioxide, emitted from an activity. If you want to get to the bottom of your own carbon footprint, the E.P.A.’s Carbon Footprint Calculator and The Nature Conservancy Carbon Calculator tell you how much your individual activities and day-to-day habits affect the environment. In general, there are some relatively simple ways to adjust your lifestyle and minimize your footprint.

Travel closer to home: Flying is notoriously bad for the planet. Some travelers have embraced the no-fly movement, or what’s called flygskam (flight shame) in Sweden, which is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2045. “The no-fly movement is one I, personally, love for both its environmental impact and the accessibility it offers travelers,” said Nikki Vargas, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Unearth Women, a feminist travel publication. “Too often, we focus on big budget trips and counting passport stamps, but the truth is that travel is a privilege not afforded by everyone.”

Find green lodging: “One way that I always try and reduce my own ecological footprint is by shopping locally and organically. Looking for opportunities, such as local markets, gives travelers a way to stimulate local economies while also making their dollars stretch further,” Ms. Vargas said. She also recommended staying in eco-friendly hotels or resorts that are LEED certified — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — which is a widely used rating system for assessing green buildings. Similar green hotel programs, like Green Globe Certification, are also worth looking into.

Buy quality when you can: According to the World Resources Institute, polyester production for textiles released about 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases in 2015. And while organic materials are less destructive, they still contribute to climate change. In general, the problem is increased production and consumption. “We ask our customers to not buy stuff if they don’t really need it,” Mr. Ridgeway, the V.P. at Patagonia, said.

Shop secondhand: Your consumption doesn’t have to create more production. Look for retail products that are built to last a long time or are B-Corp or Fair Trade Certified. Fast fashion brands are indeed more affordable, but you can save money and still avoid creating more waste by shopping secondhand using tools like Poshmark and ThredUp.

Embrace a little minimalism

A 2012 study found no significant difference between green and “brown” consumers, explaining that consumers often offset the benefit of going green by consuming more. “Even when environmental awareness galvanizes green actions, it does not necessarily put a stop to increasing consumption,” the paper said. In other words, conscious consumption isn’t just about being a little greener, but questioning how — and how much — we consume to begin with.

Minimalist movements like the Buy Nothing Project and The Year of Less challenge us to think twice about our shopping habits. Part of the benefit is saving money, but minimalism also encourages us to live less wastefully. Considering the impact of consumer waste on the environment, it’s easy to see why minimalism is having a moment.

“So, for example, if you need to replace something you already own, try to have it repaired first,” Ms. Harreld said. “When shopping, ask yourself if you want or really need something. You’re responsible for all your possessions, so give it a second and really think about just how that thing is going to serve you,” she added. “That pause before making that purchase has saved me so much money.”

One smaller carbon footprint won’t fix climate change, but taking individual action can help compel the entities that have that power. You don’t have to be a perfect consumer; a lot of us just need to be a little better. “I have a vision of what I want the world to look like for my daughter,” Ms. Harreld said. “I do my part when I can.”


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