Terms such as green, eco-friendly, or sustainable often don’t mean much. Let’s consider the less-familiar term “environmentally conscious.” The word “conscious” implies a state of mind or way of thinking. So the environmentally conscious consumer knows that the whole earth is interconnected. It is one large ecosystem where whatever happens in one place effects what happens somewhere else.
Environmentally conscious consumers know that common practices like recycling are only a good place to start. If you are one of them, you spend more time informing yourself about sustainability than non-eco-conscious consumers. You read labels more and think more about such issues as packaging and pollution.
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Some statistics about consumer attitudes toward environmental issues
How many environmentally conscious consumers are there? According to one study,
- Globally, 78% of consumers agree that sustainability is important, but only 68% have adopted greener habits, a 10% gap. In the US, the gap is 21%
- 68% of consumers globally and 58% in North America are willing to reduce their consumption to be eco-friendly.
- Interest in environmentally conscious consumption has declined somewhat since the pandemic.
- Sustainably made products have a 17% share of the global market and a 32% share of global market growth.
- Sales of products with certification from “1% for the Planet” or “Climate Neutral” doubled from 2020 to 2021, achieving $3.4 billion in sales.
- Sustainable products have better sales online than in stores.
- Many companies tout their sustainable practices. Unfortunately, they might not be really sustainable. But about 79% of consumers trust the messaging.
- Sustainable products cost about 28% more than their conventional counterparts in 2023. They cost 39% more in 2018, so the gap is shrinking.
What does this study mean by sustainable products? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? In fact, Jeffrey Hollander, founder of Seventh Generation, had to admit that his company had not succeeded in creating truly sustainable products, for which the board fired him in 2010.
In a world where sustainability is an unreached and possibly unreachable goal, what can the environmentally conscious consumer do to come closer to achieving it?
Here are five practical suggestions.
Beware of greenwashing
It’s a problem that most people trust green claims on product packaging. Much of the claims are only greenwashing. That is, the labels use meaningless terms and make meaningless claims and comparisons to hide unsustainable products and corporate practices.
For example, Volkswagen touted its “green diesel” cars and had to pay a huge fine when it turned out they cheated. They did not, in fact, engineer cars to burn diesel fuel more efficiently. Instead, they engineered them to detect inspections and give false readings.
Reynolds American claimed one of its cigarette brands was eco-friendly. Why? Because its office ran on wind power and it didn’t provide paper cups for the coffee.
If you ever see a claim that some brand of moist towelettes are flushable, leave them alone. They will cause major problems in your sewer system or sceptic tank.
Also, be skeptical of any polyester clothing with sustainability claims. It is probably an example of fast fashion, made as cheaply as possible with the expectation that customers will wear it a few times and throw it away.
Curb your impulses
For at least the last 70 years, the American economy has depended on consumerism. That is, it’s good for the economy when everyone spends a lot of money and bad for the economy if they don’t.
Brands spend a lot of advertising money trying to portray their products as somehow helpful and necessary. Stores design their layout and traffic patterns to encourage impulse buying. Be especially mindful of displays in the middle of the aisle, endcaps, or the products at the checkout counter. Or, if you shop online, you will likely see a message that a lot of people who bought what you’re looking at also bought three or four other products at the same time. It doesn’t mean that you have to!
Avoid single-use plastics
Consumerism demands not only buying a lot of stuff, but especially a lot of stuff to use once and throw away. It might not be possible to avoid single-use plastic entirely, but the environmentally conscious consumer will refuse as much of it as possible.
Reusable shopping bags instead of the plastic ones the store provides makes a good start. You can also get reusable produce bags (usable also as bread bags) so you don’t need other plastic bags. Speaking of the produce department, avoid the plastic-wrapped potatoes and the peppers in a Styrofoam™ tray.
Say no to bottled water, straws, and single-use coffee pods while you’re at it. If you have a choice between plastic packaging and non-plastic packaging, shun the plastic. That is, prefer drinks in aluminum cans and pasta sauce in a glass jar, if you can find them. If something comes in a box, prefer the one that doesn’t have plastic film around it.
These practices are fairly obvious. It may be less obvious that your bottle of shampoo or laundry detergent also come in single-use packaging. It just takes longer to empty them than a bottle of water. Nowadays, you can get shampoo in bars like soap or laundry detergent in premeasured strips. Look for products in this kind of imaginative packaging and give them a try.
Produce Bags – Cotton Mesh Produce Bags –
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Earth Breeze Laundry Detergent Sheets – Fragrance Free – No Plastic Jug (60 Loads) 30 Sheets, Liquidless Technology
Buy local if possible
Everything we buy required water and energy to make it, package it, and transport it. It’s called embedded water and energy. Have you ever seen statistics about, say, how much paper Americans use per capita? Or how much we waste per person? Those figures include our share of the embedded water and energy.
Individuals have limited control over it. However, the environmentally conscious consumer still has choices. Especially when it comes to transporation.
If you buy locally grown produce, you’re not paying for it to have been shipped across the country or around the world. That may mean foregoing what isn’t in season.
The strawberry growing season, for example, lasts only a few weeks. Early strawberries come from Mexico, then California. As the year goes on, they come in season farther north. Prices will be lower when they’re in season where you live, and that’s largely because of lower transportation costs.
Likewise, products made by local artisans have a smaller footprint than manufactured products. It’s especially smaller if they use locally produced materials.
Buying from a thrift store also counts as local. All the embedded energy and water is the responsibility of the original owner.
Conserve resources at home
So far, these tips have concerned what you buy in stores or online. We also have to pay for water and sewer service, electricity, gasoline, and possibly natural gas or fuel oil.
Environmentally conscious consumers realize that we get all this at an environmental cost. We need to be good environmental stewards in using them.
Take water, for instance. Humans have been using and reusing the same water over and over for many thousands of years. All the water that exists is all the water that will ever exist. But nowadays, the water that comes into our homes has been treated. It, too, has embedded energy, chemicals, and manpower. We all need to take steps not to waste running water.
We have plenty of ways to save electricity, too. Buy LEDs when you need to replace lightbulbs. Turn off lights, fans, etc. when you’re not in the room. Consider the outside temperature when deciding when to run your oven, dryer, or other heat-producing appliance to ease the strain on your furnace or air conditioner. A programmable thermostat also keeps your home comfortable with minimal power use.
Finally, investigate ways to save gas when you drive. One of the best ways is to reduce idling. You get zero miles per gallon when the car sits still while burning gas. And when you’re idling in a drive-thru line, you’re also breathing everyone else’s exhaust fumes. Park the car and go inside!
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