Conscious consumer on a limited budget? Read this.

There’s a perception that being a conscious consumer, or making sustainable lifestyle choices, is a bit of a luxury. In our recent survey, about half of all respondents cited money as one of the main reasons why they don’t live as sustainably as they would like to.

In fact, one of the main criticisms in the thought-provoking Quartz article published earlier this year, “Conscious Consumerism Is a Lie,” was that being a sustainable consumer seems to be reserved only for the privileged:

“The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—and 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 up your nose at 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably, a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.”

(For some equally thought-provoking responses to the Quartz article, see here and here.)

There is a lot of truth to this statement. I know many people who would like to buy a responsibly manufactured item from an environmentally and socially responsible company, but who simply feel priced out from the ethical consumer marketplace.

Most of us probably know that the cheap counterparts from big box stores or Amazon are usually manufactured cheaply in faraway places (often China), by companies that employ people in deplorable working conditions and are certainly not eager to make their processes transparent and their products traceable. We know it and feel bad about it, and would like to consume differently. But the price tags on “ethical” or “eco-friendly” goods — the kind that are beautifully featured on sites like The Good Trade — seem unrealistic for many people. And so they keep going for the cheap junk made in China, and continue to feel bad about their impact.



No, I can’t make ethically and responsibly produced goods suddenly cheaper. I doubt anyone can, if we still want to pay a fair wage for the persons who made the product. But I’m going to stand by this:

the #1 money-saving trick for an aspiring conscious consumer is not cheaper responsibly-produced products — it’s a mindset shift. You don’t need to buy more ethically manufactured goods to be a mindful consumer; you just need to consume less.

Sustainable consumer choices are expensive if you remain in the throw-away-and-buy-again mindset of consumerism that’s pushed on us by market forces from the moment we are born. We live in a world where some people experience the social pressure to renew their entire wardrobe, for example, once a year (if not once a season). Fun statistic: according to Overdressed, the average American woman buys 64 new items of clothing per year. This same logic of “fast fashion” applies to gadgets too: buy, use, discard, buy again, use, discard…

But let’s at least admit to ourselves that that’s a lifestyle choice — a decision to give into certain social pressures — and not a necessity.

A true shift to sustainability — or, better, to the kind of beyond-sustainable, regenerative lifestyle that we at Project Grounded promote — involves an honest assessment of our true wants and needs. If we all started shopping according to our true needs, we would buy fewer items per year. Maybe just one.

And then first look into what’s available used, at second-hand or consignment shops.

And only then, if you really can’t find what you need pre-owned, purchase new — and make it a real investment. Look into how the item was made. Buy durable and high-quality, even something that can become an heirloom. Take really good care of it, and if it breaks, repair it.

For after all, an ethically manufactured item of clothing that costs $150 is not any more expensive than ten cheaply made poor-quality items of $15 each. And we all know which choice is likely to be wearable for many, many years.

But here’s where things get interesting — and hopeful. I invite you to try this out as an experiment. It’s been my experience, and I’ve heard more than one person echo it, that once you start investigating how our everyday products are made and learn the true impact of your choices, you reach a point where you actually can’t bring yourself to buy the irresponsibly produced stuff anymore. Or at least not as often. Because it’s so hard to find goods that actually do good in the world, you simply buy less. (“My husband is very happy about this,” Daniela Ibarra-Howell joked at the Savory Institute’s Consumer Revolution event last year.)

And when that compulsive urge to constantly buy new is not indulged, gradually it starts to loosen its hold on us, you have some space to breathe, and you see that you actually don’t need a new [insert item here] anyway. As a result, you save money. In this way, becoming a picky sustainability snob may actually be the best thing that ever happened to you — or your wallet.


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