Social Impact Goes
Beyond Our Spending Habits
In the past decade, the rise of impactful conscious living has blossomed from a grassroots movement reserved for “feminists and tree huggers” to mainstream. Starbucks has pledged to eliminate plastic straws. Teslas are spotted zooming down HOV lanes on our morning commute. Even suburbanites, from moms to Millennials, are bringing their reusable bags to the grocery store.
Conscious shopping is a valuable way to vote for change and a fantastic place to start when it comes to conscious living. If you’re like me, these days my Instagram feed is filled with ads advertising sustainable x’s, female or POC-led y’s, or artisan-made z’s that give back to global causes. In a sense, the proliferation of conscious products (and croppings of online ethical marketplaces spurring on a once-niche economy) is exactly what we want. By all means, we should have more brands that pay living wages to global artisans, operate transparent and nontoxic supply chains, and curate spaces filled with people of all skin tones.
Yet, in the emergence of this mainstream movement, it’s also too easy to encounter mission drift, simplification, and dilution around the concept and aim of conscious living. Greenwashing has become a larger concern for fashion powerhouses selling spring’s hottest trend. Words like “sustainable” and “fair trade” have become murky in meaning and sometimes interchangeable, too easily tacked on as marketing buzzwords. Even on Instagram, some days the content around conscious living can feel like a Rolodex of brand features.
When did the conversation around conscious living and “the way to make an impact” become just about...shopping?
I admit, I’ve been guilty of this. I love discovering the latest impact-driven, Millennial brand. As a “more is more” person, I’ve found that it’s easy to fall into a trap of “buying more to do more good.” But it’s not just me. My peers who do love minimalism and vibe with Marie Kondo have admitted to struggling with this mindset too, even if that means debating the merits of buying fast fashion secondhand vs. buying artisan-made products to do more good. The keyword is “buying” in both.
Yet, if conscious living only applied to shopping habits, think about how restrictive of a movement that would be for those who wanted to live consciously, yet didn’t have the financial means. It’s no secret that ethically-made, sustainably-sourced products tend to be more expensive. My justification has always been that’s how much products should cost if they were made in ways that honored the maker and the earth. But at the end of the day, as my mom likes to remind me, money doesn’t grow on trees. Money is still money. Surely, conscious living defined by just conscious consumerism (and hence, limited to those with discretionary income) isn’t a very holistic definition after all.
Wholehearted approaches to conscious living must be change-focused, rather than brand-focused. They must be people-focused, rather than product-focused. Conscious living goes far beyond just adding things to your cart. Instead, conscious consumerism must operate in tandem with a social justice framework which dives deep into hard issues, engages relationally with the interconnected world, and keeps ourselves and society at-large accountable for our actions. The best brands do this well and encourage us to be changemakers, too. I love how Patagonia, for example, doesn’t just sell outdoor clothing, but also challenges its customers to advocate for grassroots environmental action to protect the great outdoors.
When we forget this and fail to keep ourselves accountable within this social justice framework, we see faux pas by even the most well-meaning of brands—like TOMS’ One for One model disrupting local markets, or Reformation culturally appropriating the Chinese qi pao with its leopard print rendition. Brands that are sustainably-made must also have ethical supply chains. Fair trade brands must also make strides to cut back on their carbon emissions. We must not settle for slow fashion brands that don’t feature body-positive models or models of color. And ultimately, conscious living must push us offline—into the real world, to engage with other people.
I want to challenge myself and challenge our community of mindful movers and shakers to push the envelope just a bit further. To say that conscious living can be more, should be more, and at its core is more than just shopping consciously. Next time we’re trading brand recommendations for the best “fill in the blank” products, let’s also trade names of great organizations tackling inequality in the inner cities we call home, books that help us understand things like climate change, and dates of upcoming events where we can donate our old clothing or volunteer our time to help others.
Let’s be known for our global thinking and love of the earth, not just our curated closets and homes. Let’s be willing to have hard conversations, engage people relationally outside of our comfort zones, and to put faces on issues we don’t understand.
There is grace in the process, as long as we remember that the North Star of conscious living is this: social change. Change requires friction and challenging the status quo, but as cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
At the end of the day, conscious living means so much more than just conscious consumerism. So let’s stop trying to shop our way there.
Alice is a California-based writer thinking on the things shaping urban living, the modern woman’s experience, and living a conscious life of impact in light of a bigger world. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she recently spent a year abroad in Peru working with a microfinance project. You can follow her latest creative endeavors and musings on Instagram at @alice.zhng.