Why consumers must become extinct in a sustainable world
"Why are you eating the cup?"
"I’m not eating the cup, I’m throwing it away."
"But you won’t use it again? You bought the coffee and you also bought the cup to house the coffee in. And in less than an hour after buying both, you will have drank the coffee and thrown the cup in the bin. The cup consumed, wasted, used, abused."
"I couldn't drink the coffee if I didn't have the cup."
"So you want the coffee but you don't want the cup?"
The word ‘Consume’ dates back to the late 14 century. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides a well rounded definition as follows;
"to destroy by separating into parts which cannot be reunited, as by burning or eating," hence "destroy the substance of, annihilate," from Old French consumer "to consume" (12c.) and directly from Latin consumere "to use up, eat, waste," from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + sumere "to take," from sub- "under" (see sub-) + emere "to buy, take" (from PIE root *em- "to take, distribute").”
The same source provides the following definition of the word, ‘consumer’
“early 15c., "one who squanders or wastes," agent noun from consume. In economics, "one who uses up goods or articles, one who destroys the exchangeable value of a commodity by using it" (opposite of producer), from 1745.”
Last December I wrote an article for the Undisturbed startup website called, “We're replacing Green Consumerism' with Conscious Humanism". It was brought about by an article that popped up in my LinkedIn feed, titled, “Green consumerism is part of the problem.” You can read the full article here. In a nutshell, it started me thinking about the word ‘consumer’ when positioned within the sustainability story.
A brief history of Consumerism
During one of our weekly Zoom catch ups, I was chatting to Leigh, Undisturbed’s Product Design Manager, about the phrase ‘Conscious Humanism’. It transpired that for her Circular Design focussed PhD she was looking at the history of disposable products. For many reading this, it will be known. But here's my quick rundown... (there’s also an excellent video from The School of Life on Consumerism).
My two minute synopsis would be: The Industrial Revolution happened. Cheap production ergo cheap products happened. Disposable retail products began appearing in the 1950’s specifically the paper napkin from Kimberley Clark and the disposable razor – thanks Gillette. Human aspirations and self image began being used as marketing leverage. Marketers and advertisers got clever about how to sell to the emotional human brain – responsible for all of our worst decisions. And the oil industry of course, dominated disposability. Soon, supply would outstrip demand.
We need to get clever about the language we use
Consumers drink the coffee, but also ‘eat’ up the cup. Conscious humans realise that they want to drink the coffee but do not want or need the disposable cup. Nor are they even satisfied with attempts to recycle it. When we think about consumerism (or any derivative that includes that word – more on that in a bit) v conscious humanism, this is my very simple way to view it. Consumers don’t think about buying the take away coffee day in day out, throwing hundreds of disposable cups away every year. Conscious Humans, do. They have thought about the need for the coffee without the disposable cup. So they use a reusable cup over and over and over again.
Terms such as ‘Green Consumer’, ‘Mindful Consumption’, ‘Conscious Consumer’ are already being used. But do they fit the bill of showing the difference between the two different types of coffee buyers? Well, if we accept that ‘consumerism’ is the wasteful and continual mindless purchase and use of one product after another, then these phrases can only exist together as examples of opposites or contradictions. Like Batman and the Joker - they can live in the same space but will always fight against each other.
What about the ‘zero waste’ movement? It seems like a good step in the right direction. But, for me, it places far too much responsibility on the buyer to think or worry about the consequences of a purchase. And, lets face it, being ‘zero waste’ is nigh on impossible for most. Even the self proclaimed ‘zero wasters’ cannot be truly zero waste. It’s a headline. An attention grabber. That reusable water bottle you bought? What will happen to it when it breaks? The bike you cycle around on admirably? What do you do with broken parts, repair kits or the bike itself when it breaks or is no longer fit to use? Do you honestly know that it will all be repurposed or recycled? The reality, at present, is that very few purchases are truly ‘zero waste’ when we look at the bigger picture.
We must shift responsibility to producers to be accountable for what they put into the world - the products they benefit and profit from - and not leave it in the hands of the purchaser.
Why we need to move towards Conscious Humanism
People like to buy stuff. We all do. Even the more thoughtful buyers among us – the conscious humans – still buy stuff they don't necessarily need. And to anyone who doesn't, fair play to you - you are a truly enlightened soul. For the rest of us, it allows us to express our individuality. And of course we can still do this and be mindful about it. I consider myself someone who doesn’t just spend for the sake of spending. I have never enjoyed shopping as a way to pass the time. It's also argued that buying for the sake of buying can also be attributed to the loss of ‘self’ and a means to escape from 'real' problems. It can also be considered an addiction. Which again would suggest that mindless shopping is something that might be done because we don't take the time to consider what else we might like to do with our time. Spending time inside a vacuous, concrete jungle, more commonly known as the shopping centre, strips us of time outdoors and exploring other pursuits or hobbies.
Anyway, I digress a little. Back to Conscious Humanism…
Conscious Humanism is to the Circular Economy what Consumerism is to the Linear Economy. If consumers, consume, then conscious humans, cherish. Conscious humanism is a move towards more thought, more consideration. People focus on asking questions like, “do I really need this”, if I don’t, why am I buying it? Is it to make me feel better? In which case, what is it that is causing me to feel bad and should I be putting my time, energy and money into fixing that rather than buying stuff? Or if I am buying it because I want it, will it add something to my life? When making a purchase, unlike consumers, conscious humans choose brands extremely carefully and ask questions like, where did it come from? Who made it? Does the price tag reflect the ethics? Does the company take it back when I no longer want or need it? Could I buy it vintage or second hand? Can I fix it myself or get someone to fix it for me?
But, like yoga, Conscious Humanism is a practice. Everyone is starting at different points and that's ok. It takes time to flex those mental muscles and change habits that we’ve grown up with. Habits that have formed because we are essentially part of a system that encourages buy new, buy again, buy the most up to date. Not everyone wants to live a life that’s frugal and thrifty. Not everyone wants to ‘make do’ – and why should we if we choose well and if we put pressure on manufacturers and brands to do better?
Conscious humanism engages the brain in thinking about what we buy. Consumerism is mindless, senseless buying without considering where it’s made, what it’s made from, or what will happen to it when you no longer need it. I do not believe consumers belong in a sustainable world - the two cannot exist in harmony. We must file the word ‘consumer’ to the archive vaults along with the words, ‘disposable’ and ‘waste’. We must change consumer behaviour to conscious behaviours - the ideology of capitalism and antiquated marketing. What if we start to call those who partake in better buying decisions as being involved in conscious humanism. Immediately the absence of the word 'consumer' changes the entire dynamic. We automatically separate those people from ‘consumers’.
“Conscious Humanism is to the Circular Economy what Consumerism is to the Linear Economy. Conscious Humanism is about buying less, buying well and buying mindfully. It is a step forward in buying behaviour, a practice that takes time as we strive towards a new way of living. It encourages producers to take full responsibility for what they put into the world. Conscious Humanism considers people, planet and purpose for a fairer and more balanced society.”
This is the first article looking at the role of Conscious Humanism in the bigger picture of a Circular Economy and Sustainable world.
Stay mindful, Jaxx
Chief Sustainability Optimist @ Born Sullivan