Does Voting With Your Wallet Really Make a Difference?

Looking for Change Beyond Conscious Consumerism

By Elsa Johnson

Image Courtesy of  La Petite Sardine

Image Courtesy of La Petite Sardine

In a consumer-driven industry like fashion, there is a belief that change will come driven by consumers. That is how “Vote With Your Wallet” has become the rallying cry to support local, ethical or environmental labels, and the driving force of this change.

Conscious consumerism is, as it sounds, making positive decisions through the buying process, intending to help balance the negative impact consumerism, like carbon emissions, waste and sometimes an unethical supply chain. 

The idea is that the $300 organic, wool sweater you bought that was knit by local Peruvian artisans paid a living wage, will in fact encourage the economy, industry and other consumers to transition from faster cheaper clothes to more expensive ethical and eco-clothes because you chose to buy that, and not the $50 polyester alternative.

Buying responsibly is an oxymoron. What has been pointed out repeatedly by industry leaders, journalists and social media, is that consumption is a huge part of the sustainable problem - so how is consuming more a solution? This movement has been happening for years, but is buying sustainably or mindfully really moving the needle?

“The Ecological Footprint of Green and Brown Consumers” as illustrated in the graph by a study of the eponymous title - “Introducing the Behaviour-Impact-Gap (BIG) Problem” by  Maria Csutora , Associate Professor at Corvins University of Budapest

“The Ecological Footprint of Green and Brown Consumers” as illustrated in the graph by a study of the eponymous title - “Introducing the Behaviour-Impact-Gap (BIG) Problem” by Maria Csutora, Associate Professor at Corvins University of Budapest

Has it made an effect? The big question is, has conscious consumption made an effect?

Has environmental and ethical considerations become part of the buying decision? Yes. Have we drastically reduced our carbon footprint and changed our capitalist society? No.

In a study by Maria Csutora, Associate Professor of environmental management and environmental economics at Corvins University in Budapest, published in 2012, she found there was not a large discrepancy in a green consumer’s carbon footprint, see the figure above. The figure interprets the results of a survey of 1,012 adults across Hungary -

with brown representing consumers who are not environmentally conscious (the average consumer), and green being consumers that consume consciously. Since 2012, our products might be even greener and our footprint may be smaller, but it shows that limiting our desire to become greener to just buying consciously is not going to save the world, we need to stop buying completely.

Individual environmental behaviour does not always modify consumption patterns significantly.” - Maria Csutora

This isn’t to dissuade the changes an individual can make by choosing to not use a plastic straw, styrofoam cup, or support a dress that is made ethically or is bought secondhand, but at this point, we should be thinking much larger than our individual effect. Look at the recent plastic bag ban in Australia. Australia’s two major supermarket chains, Woolworths and Coles banned single-use plastic bags because of changing consumers’ interests and negative attitudes towards single-use plastics. Since banning single use of plastic bags, Australia has seen plastic bag use drop by 80%, keeping 1.5 billion bags out of the environment.

That is a true example of conscious consumption making a change when the collective population demanded a change. However, there are a lot of industries that need to see this change happen a lot quicker. With a projected reality to turn back climate change in the next couple of years, we need more than the power of the consumer.

Sustainable vegan leather sneakers by Veja captured in  Elle Germany

Sustainable vegan leather sneakers by Veja captured in Elle Germany

According to the Credit Suisse World Wealth Report 2018, to be in the top half of the wealthiest people in the world you need $4,210 USD in assets, and according to the Global Rich List, you need to earn more than $32k USD to be in the top 1%. A rule of thumb is that you should put 5% of your monthly income towards clothes, and the average American woman spends $161 a month on clothes. The fact remains that a $300 sweater is not a realistic or feasible purchase for almost 99% of the world. The conscious consumer and Vote With Your Wallet movement would create a huge change if more of the world could partake in it. Instead, it is a movement that remains remote from the realities of the fashion industry and circumvents changing our destructive consumption patterns.

If you really want to see change, don’t vote with your wallet, actually, go vote. Vote people into your city council, into your state senate, and into executive, and judicial power that will make a difference. The problem is bigger than the consumer, it is bigger than our individual acts, needs, and wants. Buying a t-shirt that is made ethically and with sustainable practices might ping a notification in a company’s marketing department, but a national requirement for all tee shirts to be compostable will markedly see a difference in our carbon footprint and landfill waste.

If you need any help as to where to start looking to make a change on a policy or legislative level contact your local representative and express your concerns. There are new initiatives and bills being introduced into government, like the Green New Deal in the US has made waves in the media and in the government. The Green New Deal addresses climate change and economic inequality, pushing the US to use 100% renewable and zero emission energy. You can sign for support for the Green New Deal through Sunrise Movement. With an election in the US gearing up for 2020, look to candidates that support environmental and social reforms that your support.

For us to turn back climate change and stop the clock, we need to be thinking on a legislative level. It has started with the consumer and now the consumer needs to push the decision to the legislators to create policy and make effective change.