There’s one word I try to use as little as possible when it comes to talking about zero waste, living plastic-free or anything sustainable living related. In fact, I try never to use it at all.
Could you guess what it is?
I’ll tell you, and you might be surprised. Because it’s a word we hear often. Sometimes it’s even prefaced with words like “responsible” or “ethical” or “conscious” – so how could it not be a good word to use, with such honourable descriptors?
The word is this: consumer.
Now, I consume. We all consume. From food and water, to energy, to the things we buy to use and wear and own, we are consuming.
But calling myself a consumer? That implies that the main thing of value I have to offer is my ability to use up resources.
Being first and foremost a consumer means declaring that our best and most valued traits are our shopping habits.
And that is not the case at all.
I just don’t… I just can’t… identify with being a consumer above all else.
When was it decided that we would be reduced simply to consumers, to cogs in the economy, our value judged by what and how and how much we buy?
I try to never label myself (or anyone else) a consumer, and I don’t want to be labelled a consumer. I don’t really want to be called a responsible consumer, an ethical consumer or a conscious consumer, for that matter.
Yes, I try to consume responsibly, ethically and consciously. But I don’t identify as someone who buys stuff. I feel that labelling someone a consumer takes away their power, and says – the only way that you have influence is by shopping.
We have power. To share ideas, to express our opinions, to call out companies, to make our voices heard, to apply pressure to businesses and governments, to vote, to demand change, and to ask for things to be different.
Our power extends far beyond the things we buy.
Let’s not give our power away.
So if we don’t call ourselves consumers, what do we call ourselves instead?
The way I see it: we are community members. We are citizens. We are people (both as individuals and groups) who care a great deal about the planet and our children’s future.
But somehow this label of ‘consumer’ has got pushed to the forefront and rather than saying “I’m a concerned and passionate citizen” we are reducing ourselves to just one part of the whole: a ‘conscious consumer’.
I am so much more than that, you are so much more than that; we are so much more than that.
Now I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying “money talks” and the idea that “we can vote with our dollars for the change we want to see”. And I do believe that this is true: we can vote with our dollars.
But voting with our dollars does not have to mean shopping, or buying, or even consuming.
It can mean choosing green energy, or opting for public transport, or donating money to charitable causes, or contributing to organizations whose work we admire.
In fact, sometimes we “vote with our dollars” when we don’t buy anything at all.
I vote with my dollars when I opt out of the formal economy and swap stuff, share stuff, and make do with what I have.
And yes, I vote with my dollars when I shop at the local bulk store, or buy something from the charity shop.
Very occasionally I’m voting with my dollars when I buy something brand-spanking-new from a store, or less frequently, that has to get shipped from interstate.
Because yes, I consume. I try to consume responsibly, and ethically, and consciously. (And minimally yes, but I do still consume.)
That does not reduce me to a consumer.
Did you see the Guardian article published earlier in May which stated that it had updated its style guide to reflect more accurately the environmental crises facing the world?
So “climate change” is now “climate emergency” or “climate breakdown”, and “global warming” is now “global heating”. The editor-in-chief of the Guardian was quoted as saying that they wanted to ensure that they are being scientifically precise, and communicating clearly.
“The phrase ‘climate change’”, she said, “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”
The words we use to describe things are important. Stronger language definitely invokes stronger reactions. Climate breakdown clearly has a sense of urgency that climate change does not.
And ‘concerned citizen’ has a power and gravitas to it that ‘responsible consumer’ does not.
Plus, it’s far more accurate.
We cannot make the world a better place simply by consuming better. We have a chance, we have a choice and we have, I think, a responsibility to do more than simply buy things to try to create positive change.
Let’s share ideas. Let’s share resources. Let’s champion those that do good, and hold those that do not to account. Let’s sign petitions, let’s add our voice to campaigns for change, lets write to our politicians and governments. Let’s get involved where we can, and put our energy into things that matter.
Let’s consume consciously. But let’s not give our power away and reduce ourselves to being consumers, first and foremost. That is not who we are, and that is not the limit of what we can do.
The truth is, we will never save the world by shopping.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you agree, disagree, did you learn something new, have you changed your mind or are you sticking with the status quo? Whatever your thoughts are I’d love to hear them so be sure to leave a comment below!