Providing tools and support to families, citizens, and activists to counter our consumerist culture and to create new social norms about how to have a high quality of life and a reduced ecological footprint.
We can all do our part in sharing existing resources and limiting new purchases, but the reality is that we are all still "consumers." When we do need to buy something, we can make an effort to be the most "conscious" consumers we can, taking into account the impacts that our purchases have more broadly on people and the environment. Part of being a conscious consumer is educating ourselves about the hidden costs behind the things we buy. But it also means understanding how our purchases can help us shape more sustainable business practices and a more responsible economy as a whole.
The true value of stuff
In our market economy, almost everything has a price. Prices are useful because they help us gauge the relative value of consumer goods and commodities. But despite the lure of "everyday low prices," in most cases prices do a poor job in reflecting the true cost or value of an item.
Sometimes this price obscurity is due to government interference, like the subsidizing of oil extraction or mining operations. Other times it may be due to the failure of the market to value the broader costs of making or using a product on the environment and society.
In our modern consumer economy, hard-to-quantify values like community, happiness, good health, and a clean environment can suffer when prices are too low, even though these outcomes are arguably more important and valuable than material wealth. How can we continue to enjoy material prosperity while building an economy that truly values everything of value?
Finite planet, finite resources
From oil to precious metals, most of our natural resources are limited and non-renewable. But the broad availability of cheap consumer goods can hide this fact.
Economists and environmentalists are increasingly aware that the economic model of continual economic growth based on increasing material consumption will not work forever, and that we may already be hitting the fixed limits of our planet.
Alternative economic models, and more holistic measurements of progress and well-being, can help us recognize the value in non-material things. Education is another: the more we are aware of the shortcomings of the consumer economy, the more effectively we can work to change them.
The hidden costs of production
When you throw out an old toaster oven, you’re throwing out limited, mostly irreplaceable natural resources: steel, plastic (from oil), and expensive metals used in electronic parts. The market price for natural resources does not really take into account the fact that eventually they will be all used up. That day may be decades away, but it must eventually come—underscoring the need for greater respect for our limited resources.
Yet metal is not the only thing that went into that toaster. So did human time and labor (and possibly human suffering, if working conditions were poor), as well as environmental damage due to resource extraction, pollution, and other side-effects of production. In most cases, these unaccounted-for costs, known as “externalities,” are not reflected in the price of our consumer goods; the result is that individuals in affluent countries get cheap consumer goods, while the poorer countries where the production often occurs bear the hidden costs.
All externalities can’t be eliminated, but we can be more conscious of these hidden costs to both people and the environment, and seek to avoid them in the things we buy. By becoming conscious consumers, we can support the production of more socially and environmentally sound products, including items certified as “fair trade,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” and “sustainably harvested.” For tips on buying more responsibly, check out our Conscious Consumer Shopping Guide, with product guides for everyday items from baby goods to seafood.
“Stuff” and happiness
It isn’t just the production side of consumerism that depletes resources, physical or otherwise. A major paradox of consumerism is that rather than making us feel more satisfied (as advertisers would like us to believe), the consumption of goods may actually lower our happiness.
If we consider human labor and human happiness to be resources, and consider the research of the very compelling field of happiness studies, then it appears that consumerism wastes not only our natural resources, but our human resources as well. Environmental economist Julian Simon once dismissed fears about resource scarcity, believing instead that human ingenuity was the “ultimate resource.” But in an ironic twist, the more we center our lives around consumption, the more damage we do to human resources.