A Consumer Revolution

We’re happy to provide access to this short essay from Thirty-Year Plan, a book of thirty original essays by writers and thinkers like Yvon Chouinard, Terry Tempest Williams, and Carl Safina that celebrated Orion‘s 30th anniversary. Please consider supporting our work by subscribing to Orion, here.

We are no longer called citizens. Economists, government, and Wall Street call us consumers. The world economy revolves around our consumption. The stock market rises and dips according to our level of consumer confidence. But what does it mean to consume? One dictionary says, “to destroy or expend by use; use up.” “To do away with completely,” says another. A third says, “squander.” That all sounds about right for how we now make our living—and how the economy works.

Yet we are still citizens with the power to create and bring down governments. Civil democracy is and has always been the strongest force in any society. As citizens, we have the power to do good; as mindless consumers, we are destroying our natural world by using up—squandering—nonrenewable resources. Americans are especially guilty because we consume 75 percent more goods than Europeans. Consumption here has become a form of entertainment, a relief from boredom that hasn’t really worked for us: America ranks only eleventh or thirty-first (depending on the rating system) among the world’s countries for quality of life.

I used to think that designers had the most power in a consumer society. They decide what color clothes we wear, what cars we drive, and what our buildings look like—whether our cities look like Siena or Las Vegas. But I’ve come to believe that consumers are even more powerful than designers because we can choose to buy or not buy their products. The buck stops with us. We can use our power as consumers—and as citizens—to change society for the good instead of destroying our home planet.

To become a more responsible consumer, simply buy goods that won’t go out of style, are multifunctional, durable, repairable, and recyclable. Most of all, buy less; buy what you need rather than want. The economy doesn’t have to crash when we all choose to buy less, if we buy fewer but better things that are better for us. In general, goods of higher quality require more (and make more and better use of) labor. Buying higher-quality, organically grown local produce keeps your money in the community. All things being equal, buy from companies that are more socially and environmentally responsible.

But what do we really know about what goes into a pair of jeans—or what goes on inside a company? Reading a CSR (corporate responsibility report) won’t tell us much. We learn how much they the company gave to the local symphony, and what they’ve done to reduce packaging (which saves them money). But they won’t tell us the bad things they’re doing. The oil company won’t tell us how many square miles it has destroyed in the Niger Delta, nor what toxic chemicals it uses in its fracking fluids.

Transparency is rarely something a company will offer up without being forced—or nudged. My own company, Patagonia, has its own version of a CSR report called the Footprint Chronicles, a mini-website that tracks the social and environmental footprints of many of our products. We commit to 90 percent of a product’s harm at the design stage, and most of what’s bad happens out-of-house—on the farms and in the mills and factories that supply us. Identifying this hidden footprint has begun to nudge us toward transparency as more questions get asked and have to be answered—and that becomes a cause for good.

Soon consumers (and investors) may have a strong new tool to help us choose what to buy or what to avoid. Over thirty-five companies in the apparel and footwear industries, representing over a third of all the clothing and shoes made worldwide, have joined forces as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to develop a standardized tool to measure the environmental and social impact of their products across the entire life cycle. This index measures impacts from manufacturing, packaging, and shipping, as well as customer care and use, and whether the product is recycled. It allows a company to manage its entire supply chain to improve water use and quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce toxic chemical use and waste, as well as ensure workplaces that are fair, safe, and nondiscriminatory. Eventually the index can be converted into a consumer-facing rating that will allow customers to hold a smartphone to a hangtag and compare the impact of one pair of jeans to another.

Similar efforts are underway in other industries, with over four hundred indexes being considered that will measure the impacts of everything from fish to automobiles. It’s early to tell, but these indexes could create a revolution in the way we buy: they give us the information we need to be good consumers as well as good citizens—in one fell swoop of a phone.

When consumers acting as citizens choose to buy more responsibly, then corporations will have to change and governments will have to follow. That’s a real consumer revolution.

Learn more about Thirty-Year Plan and buy the book here.

Yvon Chouinard is a rock climber, environmentalist and outdoor industry businessman. Chouinard is also a surfer, kayaker, falconer and fly fisherman, particularly fond of tenkara fly-fishing. He is a writer, first on climbing issues and ethics, and more lately on mixing environmentalism and sound business practice in the concept of a slow company. His company, Patagonia, is known for its environmental focus. His books include Climbing Ice (1982), Let My People Go Surfing (2005), and The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 years (2012).