Code Red for Humanity: Can We Become Conscious Consumers?

After finishing my master’s, I worked with a business school professor on a book writing project. It was about sustainable business practices. My job was to crawl (manually) the internet to find all possible viable, sustainable technologies out there. I am a pessimistic person, and I quickly become depressed. Given the scale of the problem, the examples of sustainable business actions I was finding seemed ridiculous. Then I came across a book on sustainable consumer behaviour, a collection of psychology essays, essentially explaining why we are pretty much doomed because of our selfish, irrational, stupid human nature. Our inability to empathize with other life forms and—needless to say—inanimate natural world, our fatal addiction to instant gratification, our tendency to heavily discount future outcomes (good or bad), our aversion towards acting when we feel our action has little impact, all are ‘designed’ to make us behave in an environmentally irresponsible way. The book turned my depression into a feeling of an impending apocalypse, a feeling only intensifying over time.

This assertion about human nature may annoy or even outrage you. But how much do we know ourselves? For me, I can say, very little.

But why does it matter anyway? Are we not simply the helpless puppets in the world controlled by the global political and business machinery? What can we do other than trying to raise voices online, hoping against hope to put pressure on this inconceivably large, complex, and rigid machinery? It matters because most often, we do not realize how powerful we can be as consumers.

Businesses thrive on us, pocketing trillions and using the natural world simultaneously as extraction and dumping ground. They can get away with this crime because of their absolute political clout. They create jobs (this is changing quickly, but that’s a different story) and buy politicians left and right with the money they make—from not paying for the environmental cost they incur, at least partly—to maintain business as usual. We are paying for the cost as a society. What’s worse, we are leaving our children to pay for it at an increasingly steeper, compound interest rate.

We hope for technological miracles to solve our climate and environmental problems generally. But at what rate technologies will be developed and put to use is highly correlated with the amount of resource invested in these technologies. And whether and how much businesses and governments will invest are highly dependent on the business bottom line. As long as we are not using our buying power to stress that bottom line at a global scale, with a clear signal of penalizing bad players and rewarding the good ones, things may not change fast enough.

Be honest to yourself and admit. Being sustainable is hard; it needs real sacrifices, financial, physical, and psychological. But if we are truly passionate about protecting our natural world, as much as we are left with, and preventing the worst impact of climate change, and most of all, if we sincerely care about our own children and theirs, we must act.

We must use public forums, including social media, to put pressure on global political and business leaders. But as I’ve just argued and as evident from the historical evolution of the climate movement, we must do more. More specifically, we must use our consumer power. Besides, posting a fiery statement about the criminal behaviour of global leaders and ordering made-in-China, not-so-useful, random stuff online the next moment, sitting in our air-con room or, even worse, vacationing in Bali, is a bit hypocritic, if you ask me.

Let me confess; I am guilty of everything that I have been ranting on so far. But I want to change, to be a part of the change. I want to pledge to use my consumer power to make that change.

I can probably google to find a laundry list of sustainable consumer behaviours and give you the top ten things to do. But that would be silly. The change must be much more fundamental, almost at the philosophical level, about the kind of life we want to live.

Conscious consumerism involves thinking hard about what is essential for a meaningful, wholesome life and what is dispensable—to put in extreme words, finding out how many things we can do without. This involves thinking about the environmental footprint of our life’s choices and making possible adjustments, be it buying carbon credit for the flight you must take, opting for more sustainable products, or using second-hand furniture to decorate your home. This involves giving more to your community, financially, physically, and intellectually. We’ve already witnessed the limits of mindless economic growth for the sake of job creation; we must find alternatives. Sharing and caring are something to start with.

Most of all, this involves living a conscious life, a life worth living in its own right.

Photo: Shop Until You Drop by Banksy, in London. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Communications and Knowledge Management at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University. This write-up has been reposted from her personal blog, Ordinary Stories.