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A rebuttal: Conscious consumerism can save the world. Here's how.

An article recently published on discounted the importance of supporting ethical businesses. This is why we disagree.

Still buzzing with excitement from Natural Products Expo West, the New Hope team recently returned to our home in Boulder, Colorado, brimming with love and gratitude for the thousands of exhibitors and attendees who flocked to Anaheim this month.

Physically, I was exhausted after the show. Even a week out from California, I still felt like my body was recovering after pounding the show floor in heels (perhaps not the best choice of footwear). But I feel invigorated by the conversations I had at Expo West with responsible brands changing the world with their business practices.

This is not hyperbole. 

Whether brands exhibiting at Expo West were in the food and beverage, supplement, personal care, pet or natural living categories, nearly all of them were working in some capacity to eradicate harmful supply chains, combat carbon emissions, solve hunger, widen organic agriculture, protect the planet, clean up the oceans and much more. Many exhibitors launched their companies with the sole goal of solving an important issue—the founding mission being social and environmental change, and the product being the means of getting there.

Marinating in this feel-good post-show glow, we were particularly shocked—angry, even—to see this article published by Quartz making the rounds on social media. Contrary to what we saw at Expo West, the piece argues that buying ethically made products is futile and not worth the time nor money to spark serious change in the environment. Written by sustainable lifestyle blogger Alden Wicker, the article "Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world" is so riddled with falsehoods, contradictions and naïve arguments, we had to set the record straight.

Conscious consumerism is not a lie. Rather, supporting responsible business through our buying habits is one of the most powerful ways we can cultivate a better tomorrow.

The premise of Wicker’s argument is that "making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions" only serves to make us feel good about ourselves—not make discernible systemic change in the world. Wicker quotes a five-year old study that used the results of a survey conducted in 2010 to back up her argument—a time when conscious consumerism was rife in cases of "green washing." The survey suggests that those who said they prioritized eco-friendly options (like traveling in an environmentally conscious way, cutting their energy and water consumption, separating most of their waste, reducing their consumption of disposable items and buying environmentally friendly products marked with an environmental label) and those who didn’t had comparably the same ecological footprints.

This is problematic because surveys are notoriously poor ways of measuring consumer habits—basically, because people lie. The study itself even cautions that surveys "may result in a certain level of distortion as perceptions may vary across countries and social segments." Plus, most of the points in the survey had little to do with making ethical buying decisions. They were more about changing lifestyle.

Wicker’s following arguments are even more baseless. Take, for instance, her odd admonition that if we spent even a third of the projected $9.32 billion spent in 2017 on green cleaning products toward lobbying our governments to ban toxic chemicals in conventional cleaning progress, we would be better off.

There’s nothing wrong with donating money to lobbying efforts or environmental organizations dedicated to changing policy—supporting such institutions is a marker of conscious citizenship. But no matter how much money individuals give to lobbyists, they still need to buy cleaning supplies. Given that most people don’t make their own cleaners out of baking soda and white vinegar, consumers are faced with two purchasing options: Use green cleaners from companies such as Seventh Generation and Better Life, or use cleaners such as Clorox and Windex. Which buying decision will better support the environmental cause?

Giving to environmental groups while also supporting companies who create products so toxic you have to lock them under the kitchen sink if you have toddlers in the house is hypocritical. Supporting conscious companies will eventually force conventional brands to reformulate if they want to maintain market share.  

Another example. Wicker also recommends that environmentally friendly consumers should avoid buying expensive organic sheets, and "instead donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of the rivers." Did Wicker forget that cotton is one of the dirtiest crops in the world? Did she fail to remember that this one crop uses as much as 25 percent of the world’s synthetic insecticides—you know, those nasty agricultural chemicals that make their way into the rivers and waterways you are trying to protect?

It’s more effective to help sustain the businesses who are on the front lines convincing farmers to plant organic rather than conventional cotton. And, not for nothing, as the supply expands, the price for those organic cotton sheets will fall, making them more accessible.

What irks me most about Wicker’s article is her lack of understanding about farmer incentives. When a natural business decides to source an ingredient grown in a more sustainable way, like a pebble in a pond it initiates a ripple that reverberates throughout the supply chain. Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It (Bloomsbury, 2011) said, "Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want." It’s essential that we also take Wicker’s advice on calling or emailing our representatives to encourage governmental action on climate bills. We have a president in office who wants to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and members of Congress who want to drill for oil on public lands and push conservation efforts to the wayside. Letting your environmental and social concerns be heard in Washington, D.C. is paramount.

But legislators pay attention to money, taxes and jobs—all of which business provides. Business is a nimble, yet powerful force that has the capacity to change the way the world works for a long time. Let’s be sure the changes we make are good ones.

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