Practice Conscious Consumption

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Voluntary simplicity implies the obvious principle of conscious consumption, for example, not only reducing how much we buy and consume, but choosing environmentally friendly products whenever we need to make purchases. Research shows that people who hold values in line with the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) (discussed in chap. 3) practice ecologically conscious consumer behavior (Roberts & Bacon, 1997). Specifically, those who agree that "the balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset" and "there are limits to growth beyond which our industrialized society cannot expand" are more likely to buy recycled and recyclable products, and avoid excessive packaging, polluting materials, and aerosol containers.

People make conscious consumer decisions for different reasons. Ebreo et al. (1999) analyzed conscious consumption based on two categories: concern about the conservation of natural resources (purchasing items that are reusable, refillable, biodegradable) and concern about the wider impact on natural systems (e.g., avoiding items with pesticides, or that were tested on animals). Both factors are correlated with NEP scores, and women show higher scores on both factors than men. Recycling behaviors are related to concern with conservation rather than natural systems. In general, people seem to have more unease about toxicity of products, and are least concerned about the role of animals in the development and manufacture of consumer products. Whether this is because information about animal testing and suffering is not salient enough (we think it isn't), or people do not extend their scope of justice (chap. 3) to include animals, is not yet known.

In any case, we believe that conscious consumption is one of the public's most powerful political and economic tools. Consumers have enormous economic power that can promote or delay sustainability. For example, McDonald's ceased using styrofoam containers for their hamburgers after prominent public pressure. In 1988, consumers boycotted Burger King because they imported cheap beef from tropical rainforest countries, causing major destruction of precious ecosystems. Burger Kings' sales dropped 12%. Shortly thereafter, this company canceled $35 million worth of contracts from Central American countries and announced that it would no longer continue importing rain forest beef ( Many other examples of successful boycotts exist, along with instances of successful pressure in changing corporate practices. For example, when Deborah wrote the first edition of this book in 1994, she called Starbucks headquarters to inquire about their efforts to purchase fair-trade coffee (grown on farms that pay farmers a living wage, and with shade trees so that bird species are not annihilated). She was told that no one cares about that. After many years of public pressure, in fall 2002, Starbucks announced that it will buy fair trade certified coffee, will give $1 million to devastated coffee farmers, and will offer fair trade certified coffee as the "coffee of the day" on the 20th of each month (Co-op America Quarterly, 2002). We would prefer to see it be every day of every month, but these changes are a big start.

Each consumer choice we make supports something—sustainable or not. Responsible shopping is getting easier with the aid of resources that deliver information that is not provided in the aisles of stores or on the labels of products. For example, at the Web site, http://www., you can search for keywords by brand, product, or category to find out how companies compare on pollution, recycling, animal testing, and labor practices. Co-op America's National Green Pages lists goods and services that promote sustainability. The Union of Concerned Scientists publishes the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Brower & Leon, 1999), and several Web sites listed in the appendix give clear, up-to-date, and immediate information on responsible consumerism. A lot of important progress is also being made at the shareholder level with resolutions to change irresponsible company practices. For example, CVS, Longs, and Safeway recently agreed to phase out production and distribution of mercury thermometers because of shareholder pressure (Co-op America Quarterly, 2002, p. 25).

When better information leads to more responsible choices, cognitive psychology is at work. Most of us lack the essential information we need to make responsible purchasing choices. Imagine, for example, how your choices might be affected if you knew whether a product's manufacturing process produces dangerous pollution, whether it is horrifically inefficient, or dangerous for workers who produce it. Because most people would avoid hurting others or the planet if they could, responsible consumer information is crucial. Behavioral psychology is also at work with conscious consumerism because when we choose environmentally responsible products and services, our financial reinforcers operate on providers to promote sustainable business practices.

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