Climate conscious consumerism: What is it, and how do we do it?

“Every time you spend money you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want” - Anne Lappé, American author, expert on food systems and sustainable food advocate.

As we’re well aware, the planet is not going to save itself, and a massive overhaul of how we consume is needed in order to stop or reverse the climactic implosion of our future. However the amount of information and advice regarding what we can/should/shouldn’t do is overwhelming, and it often seems like we’re doing the right thing, only to find out it’s the wrong thing again. (Anyone else fall in perpetual confusion about what route to take on the whole vegan milk debate). And, it seems every week, there’s a new food, generally one that’s become trendy on the health scene, that’s no longer sustainable due to the demand created for it by its internet popularity. Like quinoa, avocados, coconuts, and now halloumi.  

The “right thing” needs to remain a priority and while we’re just finding our way on this, a new way of consumer thinking is emerging, one that puts sustainability front and centre, where it should be. 

How can we become more conscious and sustainable in our consumption? What does it even mean? Conscious consumption is an umbrella term that simply means engaging in the economy with more awareness of how your consumption impacts society at large. ‘Conscious consumers’ are agents of change in the hope that, what was once on the fringes, becomes the way people globally live their lives.

With our population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, what we eat is playing a role in the survival of the planet like never before. Meat and dairy production is leading to swathes of rainforests being cleared for agriculture and the methane produced by meat consumption produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Veganism is, in theory, the diet that has the least impact on the environment and in fact, it’s been claimed that its the single biggest thing you can do in pursuit of saving the planet. So far, so chickpea, but are there alternatives? Yes, but with decreasing levels of effectiveness. The IPCC report ranked the diets from one to eight. 

You can check your dietary carbon footprint here, or read and participate in the brilliant NY Times interactive infographic/food-&-climate-change FAQ here

The incredibly ubiquitous palm oil is also responsible for widespread deforestation, having almost simultaneously become the lipid du jour for dozens of industries, who swapped it in as a healthier and cheaper alternative to other fats, only for it to have a devastating environmental effect due to the sheer demand across the globe.

It’s exceptionally hard to avoid; there are most likely dozens of items containing palm oil in your home right this second, and Palm Oil Investigations, which dubs itself “the palm oil watchdog”, lists more than 200 common ingredients in food and home and personal care products containing palm oil, only about 10% of which include the telltale word “palm”. 

Its use is so widespread that the supermarket chain “Iceland” was unable to commit to a pledge to remove palm oil from all its shelves, choosing instead to just remove their own branding from palm oil products. 

So, how can we avoid it? There’s a raft of information online but these six tips are a good guideline for cutting it out of your shopping routine. 

  • The most common name palm oil is disguised under is “vegetable oil”.
  • Most prepackaged snack foods made by corporate giants contain palm oil.
  • If a product's saturated fat content makes up more than 40 percent of its total fat content, it will almost always contain palm oil.
  • Ingredients with the word "palm" in them are palm oil or are derived from the oil palm fruit.
  • If you’re not sure whether a product contains palm oil, either type the product name into your search engine along with "palm oil" and scan the search results, or contact the company and ask if they use palm oil.
  • To avoid palm oil, choose products that contain clearly labelled oils, such as 100 per cent sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil, coconut oil, or canola oil.

Plastic is not fantastic

Plastic production began to rapidly accelerate 50 years ago, however it’s in the last 15 years that it really exploded. In 2017, it was declared that 50% of the plastic ever made had been produced in the preceding 13 years. In thousands of years, this geological era (Anthoropocene) will be recognised by a new type of “rock” discovered in 2014 on the beaches of Hawaii. It was made of sand, organic debris, volcanic rock, all swirled together with melted plastic. Grim, but real. It was named “plastiglomerate” and geologists of the future might define us by its existence. That’s if we have a future for there to be geologists in. Of the 8,300 million metric tons produced between 1950 and 2017, 6,400 million tonnes has become waste: 12% incinerated, only 9% recycled, and the other, a whopping 79%, languishes in landfills awaiting eternity. So, in a time when a million plastic bottles and 2 million plastic bags are bought around the world every minute, and human plastic use is annually killing 1.1 million seabirds, and causing us to consume 700,000 microplastics, how can we go about curbing the use of this most enduring of materials? 

Here’s some ideas you can implement, but once again, the power of the information age is a great ally and there are hundreds of tips online you can adopt in an effort to go genuinely plastic free.

  • Stop using plastic straws, get a reusable one and bring it everywhere. 
  • Use a cloth bag for shopping. 
  • Stop chewing gum. It’s literally made of plastic.
  • Buy boxes instead of bottles where there’s an option. Things like fabric detergent come in cardboard boxes, and soap. Be aware of packaging. 
  • Buy food in bulk where possible cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container. You save money and unnecessary packaging. 
  • Use a keep cup. 
  • Bring a tupperware box to a restaurant in case you need a doggy bag.
  • Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters or invest in a refillable metal lighter. 
  • Avoid buying frozen foods because their packaging is mostly plastic. Even those that appear to be cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic. Plus you'll be eating fewer processed foods. 
  • Ask your local grocer to take your plastic containers (for berries, tomatoes, etc.) back. If you shop at a farmers market they can refill it for you.
  • Pack your lunch in wraps instead of plastic. Also, opt for fresh fruits and veggies and bulk items instead of products that come in single serving cups.

Hearteningly enough, the internet is awash with ways to make changes and websites that want to help you do so. Companies like the ones hyperlinked in the list of tips above are popping up all over the place to help you make your life more sustainable. 

Conscious consumerism is about making small changes all over your life to reduce your impact It’s easy to become disheartened when you see the impact we’re already having. But by the same token, the very same trend culture that’s causing much of the problem, is using its global force to make changes that are being felt already. We need to keep making these decisions now for the rest of our time here because as Naomi Klien pointed out: “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”