You are a consumer. And if that means buying any shiny object placed in your path, then it might be a dirty word. But as the late great George Carlin used to say, “There are no dirty words. Only dirty thoughts.”
I use the term “consumer” often in my work. And I have to admit that the word sometimes makes me uncomfortable. After all, aren’t we citizens, people or human beings first? Defined by the sum of our actions. And don’t those extend far beyond what we consume? Yes.
I have searched for a more appropriate word to define human beings – in those moments when we chose what and how to eat, find shelter and clothe ourselves. Suggestions such a “concitizen” and “citizumer” and such have been floated my way as well and I just keep coming back to consumer. The fact is that we are all consumers from birth to death. It is unavoidable. In fact, the world record is held by David Blaine and he was only able to do it for 17 minutes. After that, he had to breathe in again. Even when you eat food from your garden you are consuming and thusly a consumer. Perhaps a more sustainable consumer, but a consumer no less. Colin Beavan, the self titled “No Impact Man” who is attempting to live his life with zero impact is still a consumer. In fact, it is exactly how he consumes that he is working to reduce his impact.
Consuming includes buying but is not exclusive to buying. “Buyer” is only half-synonymous with “consumer” because you can chose not to buy but you cannot chose not to consume. I love to buy things second-hand. It makes me feel good because I get a great price on something already in my community that didn’t require all the packaging and shipping waste that comes with something new. But even at the thrift store I’m still a consumer.
Consumer is a word and an idea we need to get comfortable with again. Because there is great power in understanding who we are and those moments when we have the potential to have the most impact. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t help.
You have ideals and values. So let’s assume that you want to help usher in a world where people are treated fairly, where we all clean up after ourselves (industrial pollution included), where toxins are kept out of the home and food, and where you can feel safe. Great. How you consume can be how you make your values come true.
Say you need some new jeans. Quick, which pair most supports your values? There is an answer. But getting to the answer is difficult.
As you consume these jeans you have four choices:
Consume them new.
Consume them used.
Don’t consume at all.
(note: the decision not to consume is a consumer decision)
Consume some materials and make them yourself.
Each decision can bring the world you want to see closer or push it further away. I won’t go into a breakdown of each, but suffice it to say that it’s complicated. The international cotton markets include cotton from farms that employ child labor. So you would have to go with organic cotton to be sure there was no child labor in the making of your jeans. That means most of the big brand names wouldn’t be an option and style might become limited. Then the cut and sew process is rife with human and environmental implications.
Screw it. It’s too complicated.
The good news is that it’s becoming easier to be an empowered consumer. The tools to make VERY informed choices are coming. GoodGuide.com is still in early stages but it is indeed empowering. The tools are only half of the equation, though. The other half is consumer awareness. There’s that damn word again.
Consumers are suddenly organizing themselves via the web. Consumers constitute the largest single segment of the economy. Bigger than all of the corporations. Bigger than labor. And as of yet unorganized and unaware and maybe even ashamed to be defined. They have no unions. No economic summits.
You are a consumer. And if it means buying without a thought in your head, then indeed it might be a weak and dirty word. But if it means harnessing the power of the largest segment of the global economy to become a force of good for all humanity, then that starts to sound like a pretty good word to me.
Republished with kind permission.