03 Feb

Consumer or Citizen? How We Gain The Power To Change The World

A few years ago it struck me – I am complicit with modern-day slavery and serious environmental destruction. I had been campaigning against the insidious crime of sex trafficking when I found myself chatting with two passionate campaigners at a pop-up shop in London. They told me about the children picking my cotton in Uzbekistan and the widespread impact of pesticide runoff in India.

As a teenager, I refused to buy Nike and Gap. Thanks to some very effective journalism the western world had become aware of the child labour in factories across Asia, and these global brands were implicated. But like many other people, I didn’t allow myself to consider just how widespread this injustice could be and how many other brands were doing the same thing. For years, it was easier just to bury my head in the sand and not think about it.

The system promotes bad practices

It’s been nearly seven years since I joined the ethical fashion movement – and to be honest, it’s been tricky to be a purist about the supply chains I’m buying from. The system is set up so that making the right decision (one that aligns with your personal values) is really hard. I drive my car because the public transport systems do not accommodate my schedule. The lack of options at the supermarket means I buy tuna which is most likely contributing to overfishing. And poor labelling and hidden supply chains mean I do not know the true cost of my garments, limiting my power to make a better choice and call the company to account.

We need a new default. We need systems and business structures that automatically choose the most sustainable and ethically-oriented avenue.

Is it so hard to imagine a world where companies never make clothing or products which release toxic chemicals, destroy natural habitats, exploit workers or are tested on animals?

Really?

We’re consumers before we’re citizens

Our identity in society is predominately that of a consumer. We are spoken to more as a consumer than we are as citizens or human beings. Our needs as people have been commercialised and marketing has become so effective, that unquenchable consumption has become a cultural norm.

We’re bombarded with messages telling us we’ll be happier, more successful and more fulfilled if we have newer stuff. Did I really need to upgrade my iPhone? Those three winter coats – were they entirely necessary? We receive an estimated 3,000 marketing messages a day telling us that we need to consume in order to live a better life. Not so long ago, our status and meaning came from our community and family. Today it’s reflected by the car we drive or the labels we wear.

Marketing is incredibly subtle and pervasive. But it’s time that we reclaim our identity and hold these corporations accountable for the impact they have on our world. It’s time to solve these problems with better company policies, increased transparency and awareness about their impact.

And that’s where we have the opportunity to put our citizen hats on and make a difference. Because companies are listening.

The tipping point from consumer to citizen

Having more stuff doesn’t make us happy. Once our basic needs are met, it’s quality relationships and a strong community that increase our happiness. And you know what adds to happiness? Working towards shared goals.

I doubt many people will disagree when I say that having a healthy planet, and people who aren’t exploited for our gain is a fairly universally shared value.

So how can we move from a consumer mindset to a global citizen mindset where we pursue our universally shared vision?

1. Build community

Let’s find our value and identity in our community, from our family and friends to the global community at large. When we love and care for people, we automatically feel happier and full of love. Take time to spend with people rather than scrolling through the latest ASOS sale on your laptop. Or go for a walk in nature on the weekend instead of joining the throngs in the malls buying more stuff that we don’t need.

2. Develop new traditions

Instead of acquiring more stuff in search of self-worth, have an experience or invest that money in improving our world. Do you really need to buy all those boots this winter? Instead, you could save that money to swim with turtles in the Great Barrier Reef. Or enjoy a dinner out with your loved one, where you actually engage in meaningful conversations. Instead of giving gifts, give experiences. A day-spa voucher, or scuba course. It’s experiences and not things that will create lasting memories.

3. Join a new economy

Only in the last 80 years have we moved from living hand-to-mouth to over-consumption. Our grandparents saved for years to afford a house. They wore the same coat for twenty years. Now people own multiple houses, wear clothing for one season and throw out thousands of dollars worth of food each year.

So it’s exciting to see new economies emerging which provide a sustainable consumer alternative. Car sharing models, fair trade economies and fresh produce cooperatives are disrupting the capitalist business model and in the process, we’re building stronger community engagement. This is about disrupting an economy of acquisition.

4. Talk to brands, companies and corporations

I’m particularly excited about this one. Companies are listening to people using their voice and calling for better policies on the environment, treatment of animals and people. That’s why we built into our Good On You app the ‘Your Voice’ feature.

We’ve had a great response within our app of people taking action. Sending encouraging messages to brands that are doing well (Etiko and People Tree) and urging brands to improve on areas they’re passionate about (H&M and Forever New).

The future looks bright

We’re seeing a shift in business models towards shared value – solving social problems that intersect with business. Many social enterprises, like Who Gives a Crap (using recycled paper to make toilet paper with 50% of profit going to build toilets for those in need) and Bhalo (employing marginalised communities in Bangladesh, paying them a sustainable wage) are turning the traditional business structure on its head and using their profit for good.

These aren’t coincidental shifts in the business world. They are happening because people have more access to knowledge and communications tools than ever before. And they are saying enough is enough; we don’t want an economy that thrives off the backs of the poor or our natural environment.

This is the rumblings of a shift from being consumers to global citizens.

Try as we may, the majority of us do need to buy clothes, food and other lifestyle goods. At the same time, we don’t want to be complicit in the issues we care about. At Good On You, we want to help you shop on your values. The app shows you how a brand rates on their ethics and sustainability credentials from publicly available information. The direct line of feedback to companies offers you the opportunity to act as a citizen, directly telling companies that they’re doing great, or you’ll be shopping elsewhere until they improve their supply chain. We’ve started with fashion but we plan to expand to beauty and personal care products in the near future.

We only have one planet. And we only have one life.

Editor's note: Feature image via Unsplash. Bethany's original article been updated by Kendall Benton-Collins.

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