*Originally published in The Carletonian.*
The Viewpoint section of my school’s student newspaper posed the question “As a college student, what are your strategies for being a conscientious consumer without breaking the bank?”
This question implicitly relays the myth that ethical and sustainable living is prohibitively expensive. We are so inundated by ads for “eco-friendly” and “socially-responsible” products, we easily forget that simply not consuming is often the most powerful choice we can make.
Look: driving a Prius is certainly preferable to driving a pickup truck… but not by much. A Prius is still a massive, metal machine that requires a huge sum of ecologically taxing resources to manufacture, propel, and eventually discard. A far better option would be to forgo car ownership in favor of walking, biking, carpooling, or using public transport. Note that these alternatives are all cheaper than buying a car!
In the same way, buying a brand-new organic-cotton shirt from Patagonia (expensive!) is not as powerful as repairing an old shirt, or buying a used one from a thrift store (cheap!). Buying an energy-efficient drying machine (expensive!) is not as powerful as opting to hang-dry your clothes (cheap!). Buying a new pair of stylish, fair-trade, vegan-leather boots (expensive!) is not as powerful as sticking with the pair you already own (cheap!). Reusing, repairing, repurposing, and exchanging goods is almost always cheaper and less damaging than engaging in “conscientious consumption.”
This is because over-consumption of energy and resources is the root of the problem. And despite the good intentions of those that purchase environmentally and socially responsible products, exploitation and injury of people and planet simply cannot be avoided while wealthy nations continue to consume materials at their current rate.
So by all means, if you need socks and you have the money to spare: go for the organic, fair-trade ones. But we should recognize that making do with fewer socks is actually a far more powerful decision. We should recognize that truly responsible consumers utilize the currency of resourcefulness and restraint before dollars. And we should recognize that those who do this most expertly are often the poorest members of our society.
I do not say this to idealize a poverty I have not lived. I simply wish to refute the notion that an environmental and ethical consumer lifestyle is an expensive endeavor, reserved for those with lots of spare cash. For, in reality, the most conscientious path to take is often times also the cheapest: the path of non-consumption.