When I started doing research for this article, I did not anticipate much criticism; but alas, it is 2018 and conscious consumerism is officially a subject of debate among our fellow tree-hugging brethren.

What could possibly be dividing people intrinsically motivated to save our environment in the context of making socially-conscious purchasing decisions? First, let’s back up and look a little closer into the historical meaning and intentions of ‘conscious consumerism.’

Conscious Consumerism: A (Very) Brief History

A great article by blogger Jaya Ramchandani references a 1972 study by Anderson and Cunningham. It describes the typical conscious consumer as a “pre-middle age adult of relatively high occupational attainment and socioeconomic status…typically more cosmopolitan, but less dogmatic, less conservative, less status conscious…”

Did the word hipster just pop into your head?

Well, not much has changed in the past 4+ decades. The majority of people in our society who have bought in to the philosophy of conscious consumerism continue to exist in middle and upper class circles. Some of their popular influencers include stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba.

What Does it Mean to be a Conscious Consumer?

In short, being a conscious consumer means being aware of the societal implications of what and where you buy things. Many like to consider it ‘voting with your wallet’; accepting the political power tied to your purchase decisions.

Examples of modern-day conscious consumerism could include:

  • Purchasing organic produce, clothing, bedding, cleaning materials, etc
  • Avoiding shopping at a certain store because of known political affiliations (like when George Takei called for a public boycott of Hobby Lobby…he was not the last)
  • Buying second-hand clothing from consignment stores
  • Eliminating foods that contain chemicals harmful to the environment
  • Only using reusable, non-plastic water bottles
  • Growing your own food or shopping at farmers’ markets or co-ops
  • Shopping local

So, the behavior can certainly take on many forms. It is, by definition, subjective. Ramchandani offers a simple, 21st century definition:

A conscious consumer is an agent of change who considers the social, environmental, ecological, and political impact of their boycott and boycott actions.

Is Conscious Consumerism Attainable?

Sure, caring about and taking the time to make conscious decisions that allow you to sleep well at night sounds like a novel undertaking. But is it attainable to the average consumer? In this context, I will define the average consumer as a middle-age, middle-class, working parent with both financial and time constraints.

In her article, “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world,” Alden Wicker masterfully illustrates the dilemma most of us face:

“The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—which it most certainly is. You need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options, the leisure time to research the purchasing decisions you make, the luxury to turn your nose up to 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.”

On the other hand, the example given above is one on the extreme end of the spectrum. It actually costs a person less to buy a reusable food container rather than purchasing endless boxes of Ziploc bags. Curbing your clothes-buying habits to fewer and better options rather than piles of poorly-made clothes from Target also saves cash. It also costs less money to prepare meals from the grocery store (with or without organic produce) rather than buying take-out.

So, How Can I Change the World?

Being conscious is the first step of enacting change, but the methods behind the movement may need refreshing.

Maria Csutora explains in a 2012 research paper:

“Making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want.”

Wicker suggests that, “…what we need to do is take the money, time, and effort we spend making these ultimately inconsequential choices and put it towards something that really matters.” For example, she suggests that consumers redirect the billions per year we spend on green cleaning products towards lobbying lawmakers to ban the toxic chemicals we’re avoiding.

“We pat ourselves on the back for making decisions that hush our social guilt instead of placing that same effort in actions that enact real environmental change.”

Where’s the Middle Ground?

There is certainly a middle ground between Goop and dumpster diving. You are making a difference by avoiding plastic water bottles, recycling, eating leftovers (and using reusable Tupperware vs Ziploc bags). You also enact change in your awareness of what you buy vs. what you actually consume.

Furthermore, the price of organic produce is veering closer to mainstream prices. Do a quick price check before you dismiss the eco-friendly aisle in financial fear. As buying organic becomes more in-demand, mainstream stores have responded by making it more affordable. Deciding with your dollars, it turns out, DOES sometime make a difference.

Making the hard decision of whether you really need to buy something all together is the new face of conscious consumerism. The question now may not necessarily be “what kind of thing should I buy.” Instead, it is now “do I actually need to buy a thing at all?” Ask yourself the next time you are at the store.


If you are looking for some place to donate to in lieu of purchasing more expensive day-to-day goods:

If you care about ending child labor: http://stopchildlabor.org/

If you care about testing on animals: https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/

If you care about water conservation: http://www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/default.aspx

Get involved in enacting change in your government! Educate yourself on where your vote can make a difference during local and national elections—and then spread the word!