The problems with so-called “conscious consumerism”

By Tiana Reid, Editor and Community Manager at SocialBusiness.org

Is “conscious consumerism” an oxymoron? While the social business and social enterprise spaces have allowed for somewhat of a rebirth of a socially centered business model, materialism can’t be the motivation for innovation.

As an editor and community manager, I come across – and write about – dozens of purpose-driven companies. Some like FoodCycle and MyBnk Fair Finance are service-oriented, meaning that their direct line is working with people toward social and environmental justice.

Many social businesses, however, are product-focused. Everything from bracelets made out of bona fide ammunition to one-for-one shoe products and fair trade fashion lines make the cut here.

How does consumerism and materialism fit into an industry that, perhaps, makes profit from pain? Undoubtedly, many social enterprises reinvest a significant portion of their profits to further the social benefit. What are the implications of encouraging consumers to buy – regardless of the outcomes?

Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign has been criticized for being problematic for a number of reasons including, but not limited to blind clicktivism, misrepresentation, the use of good/evil language, spending habits, the “White Savior Industrial Complex” as novelist Teju Cole called it, their emotional tourist strategy, the lack of Ugandan participation and the not-for-profit’s militaristic approach to arresting Joseph Kony.

“Yes, it’s great that social media is buzzing with something about human beings instead of bright, shiny objects,” Forbes contributor Anthony Wing Koster wrote earlier this week. “And it’s great to think of the internet as an engine of altruism instead of materialism.” Really?

The video goads buying Invisible Children’s products to “make Kony famous.” The ‘Kony 2012 Action Kit’ is $30 and comes with “Everything you’ll need to take part in our KONY 2012 campaign,” according to the online store. What’s more, “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.” Awesome. Moreover, the Kony bracelet is dubbed as the “the ultimate accessory” and the model in the image is black, which is significant since most Ugandans couldn’t afford a $10 bracelet, and most people in the video on the “activist” side weren’t people of color. Both products are sold out.

In 2012, recent UC Berkeley Business Administration graduate Rosalind Chu expressed her internal back-and-forth debate when deciding what career to pursue. In a post called “Excess, wealth, and materialism and how that fits into a career in social enterprise,” she wrote: “society — American society especially – breeds a culture of excess, consumption, and materialism. We are bombarded daily with new products or new ‘somethings,’ and are constantly reminded of how awesome it must be to be rich and wealthy.”

But are the problems of consumerism exempt from social business? Of course not, but what would an ideal version “conscious consumerism” even look like?

Consumption – conspicuous or not – must slow right down in order to make up for the dirt in our air, our oceans and our lives… I mean, ideally, the story might go like so: if I need (or, okay, really want) to buy a new lipstick/t-shirt/pair of shoes, I’ll opt for buying the product from an ethical producer rather than from a corporate giant with opaque production practices. But maybe, really, I’ll get both, but I’ll feel better for having also chosen the former.

Environmentalist, activist and writer George Monbiot said that “[g]reen consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.” He argued that cause-conscious campaigns – whether hybrid cars or poverty-alleviating shoes – draw in people’s self-interest in that those products will help to beef up your social status. Furthermore, he emphasized the need to crusade for our values rather than conforming to the status quo, an apathetic politically hollow atmosphere. In essence: structural change is needed to mitigate the mess we’re all in.

While I push for the accessibility of fairly produced products, I just can’t wrap my head around buying yet another thing I don’t need, bought from the convenience of my sweatshop-produced MacBook. But, too often, it comes down to the question of “What’s worse?”

3 thoughts on “The problems with so-called “conscious consumerism”

  1. Pingback: Daily Digest for March 31st

  2. Pingback: For us, buy us: women, consumerism and social change « Social innovation meets business revolution

  3. Pingback: Mission-driven products appeal to consumers

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