When people start thinking about social justice or the environment for the first time, their own consumer choices are often a starting point. What brands should I be avoiding? Which ethical alternatives should I try? But if you keep digging, bigger issues soon start to surface. What if the problem is deeper than the sum total of all our individual choices? What if it’s systemic?
Sian Conway-Wood has been on that kind of a journey, and it comes across well in the pages of Buy Better Consume Less: Create real environmental change. It’s a book that lives in the tension created by it’s own title – buying better and consuming less may not add up to real environmental change. Making a genuine difference will require more than our own personal enlightenment. “The climate emergency isn’t a problem we can shop our way out of.”
I could mention several big names in climate who admit quite openly that they haven’t changed their own lifestyles, because the real issues are systemic. See Bill Gates’ climate book for a notable example. Conway-Wood is having none of that. Personal actions matter and they’re a great place to start. The book is full of practical advice for making good buying choices – including the ultimate environmentally friendly choice, which is to not buy things at all. It’s just that you can’t stop there.
Ethical shopping often involves a lot of research, looking up products that aren’t on the high street, looking into production techniques and supply chains. If you’re short on time, says the author, you might want to use that hour lobbying for change instead. “Your actions might be more effective as a citizen, not a consumer.” This is something I say regularly – if everyone who’s spent an hour researching plastic free toothpastes online had written to Colgate and Aquafresh instead, we’d have plastic free toothpaste in Boots already.
Besides, as Conway-Wood explains, keeping the focus on consumer choices lets the corporations off the hook. “While we’re busy blaming each other,” she writes, “we’re not challenging those that hold power or changing the system around us”.
The book balances these priorities admirably. For those looking for useful tips on making good consumer choices, there’s plenty – such as a section on the techniques that supermarkets use to make you spend more. There’s advice on how to see through sales techniques or greenwash. But the book constantly calls the reader’s attention back out to the system that creates the problems in the first place. More significant change will come from challenging the companies, contacting our representatives about government action, supporting campaigns for larger scale change.
The book doesn’t get as radical as it might, stopping short of the protest actions or civil disobedience that have become more common recently. But it does get as far as investigating wellbeing economics, simple living and the doughnut, the circular and regenerative economy, and what the world might look like on the other side of consumerism.
“In all the years that we’ve been shaming ourselves and each other for failing to shop sustainably despite our best efforts, without acknowledging that shopping itself is the problem, we’ve let corporations take control. Now it’s time to take it back.”
- Buy Better Consume Less is published by Icon Books and is available from Earthbound Books UK
- Follow Sian Conway-Wood on Twitter, or join her #EthicalHour