“What’s the most important thing I can do to be more sustainable?” This is a question that I consider more often than nearly any other. Common answers that I have heard and support are voting, participating in direct actions that will influence policy, and being a conscientious consumer.
But underlying all of these actions is the fundamental step of becoming educated. Perhaps this takes the form of knowing where your chocolate comes from (and not just where, but how it’s being grown, who is harvesting it and how they’re being treated, how the product gets to you, and what the company adheres to in terms of sustainable labor and ecological standards) or which candidate you’re supporting in an election. Whether voting with your ballot or your dollar, making informed decisions can only come from having a solid understanding of your options.
Would you be more likely to avoid a company if you knew that their practices involve child labor and forced labor? I think many of us would say yes, but there’s also a strong element of “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to consumerism. From the clothing in our closets, to the electronics that we rely on nearly twenty-four hours a day, to the palm oil in our favorite foods and household products, to the shrimp on our dinner plate, these (and hundreds of other) industries are riddled with inequitable and unsustainable labor practices.
Do your research. Look into the practices of your favorite brands. Are they transparent? Do they provide information on their practices and products? If not, find alternative companies or cooperatives. Do you shop based on labels? Make sure the fair-trade or sustainability certifications you look for are backed by substantial agreements ensuring adherence to certain practices rather than just empty promises.
As a human being, it is nearly impossible to avoid contributing to the systems that govern our consumption. There are, however, many ways to make your impact more positive than negative. The following are several resources to which I have been introduced over time that have helped me to be a more sustainable consumer in most aspects of my life:
- Clothing: Remake’s Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Fashion
- Fruits, vegetables, and other food products: Real Food Challenge’s Sustainable Food Purchasing Guide
- Seafood: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Consumer Guides
- Electronics: Green Electronics Council
- Home paper products: NRDC’s The Issue With Tissue report
- Brands and products containing palm oil: Green Global Travel report
In an ideal world, this burden of being informed would not fall entirely on the consumer. If companies based their decisions on morality rather than money, perhaps our only options would be those that are ethical, equitable, and sustainable. It is critical that we as consumers demand top-down change within our social, political, and economic systems, implicating corporations. Bottom-up, individual-level action is a large piece in the puzzle as well, but necessary changes cannot be made from either direction without education, awareness, and demand for transparency.
So spread the word. Tell your friends, family members, peers, teammates, and coworkers. None of us can change a system if we don’t know that it’s broken.