Are You a Conscious Consumer? Here’s What That Means for Your Food Choices
The idea of sustainability is well known in fashion and business. Sustainability is the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting the Earth's natural resources and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance as you create and market goods and services.
Being a Conscious Consumer, while a lesser-known term, is on the rise, as more consumers shop for food that is organic, healthy, vegan, certified Fair Trade, better for the environment, and grown, packaged, or produced by companies that align with their values.
A Conscious Consumer sets out to educate themselves about how their consumer choices impact people, animals, their personal health, and the planet, and that leads to eating as many plant-based foods as possible and as few animal products as possible.
To be a Conscious Consumer, you need to lean into eating less meat, since animal agriculture uses more crops, water, and petroleum products than growing plant-based proteins. Factory farming emits an enormous amount of greenhouse gases, compared with plant-based farming.
Sustainable Also Means It Lasts Forever
The idea of sustainability also has another meaning, since it also means the object, once created, is reusable or recyclable. In food, a sustainable ingredient may be packaged in a plastic container, but once the plastic is created it does not ever leave our environment.
Instead of sustainability alone, consumers are beginning to think about being "conscious" of where both the ingredients and the packaging come from, and where it goes once we are done with it. It's the same argument that got rid of plastic straws. Being conscious entails thinking, educating ourselves, and considering what goes into the raising, growing, producing, packaging, shipping and then disposing of our food and all the packaging it includes. And it involves considering the people, animals, environment, and health of our choices. Conscious consumers take a holistic view and approach to their consumer choices.
According to a paper published by Pepperdine Business School, Conscious Consumerism is a new type of consumerism, that is becoming more popular as consumers realize that their decisions at the store have an impact on their environment and that they have the power to shift how business happens, by supporting companies that share their value system.
"The consumer model is constantly shifting, with many customers today focusing on what is known as “conscious consumerism” — the buying practices driven by a commitment to making purchasing decisions that have a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.
"In layman’s terms, this means consumers are buying into businesses — both big and small — that lead with their moral compasses, not compromising the well-being of workers, animals, or the environment for financial profits. This practice is consistently on the uptrend, and businesses are taking notice, with many changing their models to appeal to the “conscious consumer” market."
Conscious Consumerism Started to Take Hold In Fashion
Conscious consumerism also comes from fashion, just as sustainability did. In fashion, "conscious" goods are those that are independently vetted and contain either certified materials that are organic, recycled, or up-cycled, or are produced by certified production methods, that are fair trade and treat workers well. They also need to come from brands that score well on the ethical rating platform "Good on You." That's the fashion definition.
The food definition of Conscious goods would be that the food is:
- Made from ingredients that do not create irreparable or undue harm to the environment
- Produced without causing harm to animals, birds, and fish, or contributing to their exploitation
- Made in production facilities that treat workers fairly, ethically, and safely
- Grown in a sustainable way, so that the required natural resources can regenerate
- Certified Organic, Vegan, Fair Trade, and without Bio-Engineered ingredients
- Made by a company committed to ethical manufacturing practices or is a B-Corp
- Packaged without an undue amount of single-use materials such as plastic
- Grown locally or as close as is practical; not shipped great distances unnecessarily
The idea of "Conscious Consumerism" is to be thoughtful and considerate of your decisions at the supermarket, and be aware of the impact of your food choices on the planet. Searches for vegan, organic, recycled, and sustainable are all on the rise.
Being conscious combines all of these, with the understanding that you can never achieve perfection. But if you shop in the produce aisle and stay away from the meat and dairy sections, you are doing your part to eat in a way that is both conscious, sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly.
Rather Than Seek to Be Sustainable, Try to Be Conscious of Your Food
But the other problem with "sustainable" as a word is that it's all too true, in a negative sense as well as a positive one. Meaning, that once a plastic bottle is created to hold your spring water, it can never be uncreated.
You can recycle that plastic bottle, in your recycling bin, and if you are lucky your municipality will work through the colors and types of plastics and resell that waste to a user (often overseas, involving the shipping of plastic mountains of garbage) to be reused as fabric or other material, and then sold again to a "sustainable" fashion company that will make a fleece or bag out of it. If you're lucky.
More likely, the bottle that you sip from at the gym or in the car will end up in a landfill or the ocean, as do so many of our supposedly recyclable plastics. Not to burst your ecologically minded bubble, but recycling has been a near-total fail.
Conscious Consumerism is About Being Thoughtful, Not Perfect
The truth about conscious consumerism is that the first thing you need to do is accept the fact that every breath you take "costs" something, as does every mile you drive, every hour you fly, and every meal you eat. Taken as a fact of life, that just by breathing you are consuming oxygen and exhaling CO2 the best we can all hope for is to do the least amount of damage and the most amount of good with our time on the planet.
Assuming you are not holding your breath as you read this (please don't since you'll pass out and make me the culprit) you can make conscious consumer decisions about what kind of milk you drink (oat is better than almond, but any plant-based milk is better for the planet than dairy cow's milk), as well as the type of protein you eat, and the general look and composition of your plate of food.
Animals, and animal farming, in particular, release an enormous amount of CO2 and methane gas, both in the equipment, the feed, and the belching and passing gas that happens when cows eat grass. A recent study found that meat production is responsible for 57 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world, more than twice the level that plant-based food production generates.
Dr. Walter Willett, who is the former Chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and one of the world's leading educators on the topic of what to eat for human health and the planet, created what has been dubbed "The Planet Diet."
Dr. Willett tells us that we Earthlings simply can not sustain our habit of eating as much meat and animal products as we do and still expect the planet to feed us for generations to come. That's where sustainability comes in: The planet can not sustain our taste for meat without irreparable damage to our environment and climate.
Dr. Willett told The Beet: "A healthy and sustainable diet will be primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy, and other legumes. While being a vegan is an option, our diet can also be good for planetary and human health if we chose to include small to modest amounts of dairy, fish, and poultry and occasionally red meat."
A planet-friendly diet is also a human health-friendly diet, he adds: "We have documented that eating for planetary health can also be eating for our personal health, so this can be a double win. Broadly, this means shifting toward a healthy plant-based diet; I emphasize healthy because donuts and coke are also plant-based, but obviously not healthy."
Read More: Dr. Walter Willett Wants You to Eat Plant-Based for the Planet
To get to a point where the crops and farmed land we have can feed our population, we all have to dial back the meat and dairy drastically and only seek meat as a garnish or taste treat. Our diets need to shift to become plant-based, both to slow the global warming trend that is causing climate change and to allow ourselves enough food to feed our inhabitants of this place called Earth.
So what is being a Conscious Consumer?
Knowing where your food and other consumable products come from, and what their impact is on the environment. Then, do everything you can to dial back your individual climate impact. Overheard at a recent dinner table, as everyone around me was enjoying a meal full of meat, cheese, chicken, and dairy: "I finally broke down and got a Tesla. Gotta do my bit!" I had to bite my tongue not to launch into a diatribe about the fact that you're not really doing your bit if you're still eating meat.
If we all stopped eating meat, even one meal a day, it would be the equivalent of taking millions of cars off the road, since one person skipping meat one meal a day for a full year, is the equivalent of not driving between New York City and Los Angeles. Do it for two meals a day and you could save as much CO2 equivalent as driving back across the country. Three meals a day and you can drive as much as you want and still consider yourself a conscious consumer.
So here are the ways to be a conscious consumer every day
So basically where does that leave us? If the equivalent in transportation is, wherever possible, to take your bike instead of your car (for errands of under just a mile or two) then for food that means making simple swaps. Instead of almond milk, which uses an inordinate amount of water, choose oat milk. Instead of this ... eat that.