Who Believes in Unicorns? Reflections on Consumerism and Responsibility*

The last 12 months have truly been challenging – for some of us more than for others, for sure. Next to thousands of deaths due to the pandemic and our struggle to save lives and livelihoods, nothing else seems to matter much. It might therefore seem inappropriate, even pretentious, to talk about consumption at this point of time. Should we not support the economy right now rather than question it? Is this really the time to critically reflect upon our consumption behavior? I say it is.

Sustainable consumption
Time to talk about responsible consumption. Photo by Vika Aleksandrova on Unsplash

Right now, the pandemic is in full flow. There is hope that thanks to hard lockdowns, mass vaccinations, rapid tests and spring coming eventually, we will hopefully soon have overcome the worst. But when the pandemic is finally over and things slowly get back to normal, we will realize that the struggle is not over yet. On the contrary: a much bigger task is waiting for us and it cannot be solved by a vaccination. I am of course talking about climate change. Yes, I know, you probably do not want to read another “our house is on fire” warning, we’ve heard them all, we know we have to act, so…why don’t we?

Of course, the climate crisis is so complex that there is no one solution to solve it. There are many different aspects, players, problems and processes to align until we even get close to a truly sustainable future. So, let’s focus on one aspect that we can all relate to: our everyday consumption habits. This might seem insignificant next to sectors like energy or transport, but trust me, it matters. Every purchase we make has used resources and caused emissions somewhere. Even so-called sustainable or green products have a certain footprint, although in most cases it is smaller than its non-sustainable alternatives. I know most of us do not want to hear it, but the most sustainable thing to do, would be to not consume at all.

I know we have to buy some things like food or clothes for our everyday lives, but let’s be honest: how many new things have we bought this year that might not have been necessary or that even did not make us any happier? Which of these footprints could have been avoided either by us admitting that we do not actually need that fourth pair of jeans, or – and here is a critical thought – maybe some of our footprint could have been avoided by the businesses themselves by providing us with products that are durable, repairable and do not go out of fashion, so we keep them longer and do not need to buy something new? Where am I going with this? Well, in my humble opinion the whole discussion on consumerism too often ends with shifting the responsibility on us consumers: we just have to rethink our consumption, be mindful consumers, and not buy the bad stuff; make do with less, find beauty in simplicity, do more yoga and meditate (which by the way, is good for your health, so do it!). Even some company representatives argue that as the consumer always has the choice, they do not see it in their responsibility to remove unsustainable products from their portfolio, because why should they patronize us on what to buy? I mean, are you serious?!

Before I lose myself in a rage against certain multinational food and drink processing conglomerate corporations headquartered in Switzerland let’s take a deep breath and think twice about this argument. Do we really want this ‘freedom of choice’? Do we want to have to choose between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ products? Do we really need 20 different kinds of shampoo? And is it fair of businesses to push the responsibility for sustainable and ethical consumption onto us while they bombard us with advertisement, with social pressure to be up to date and follow the trends, with new and fancy products without transparent information on its origins or ecological footprint? To me, the answer is clear: if we want to solve the climate crisis, everyone has a responsibility to act – not just the politicians, not just us as citizens and consumers, but also businesses have to accept their role as economic market players and shapers and use their power to change the way we understand and do business.

How many products do we need?
How many different products do we really need? Foto von Oleg Magni von Pexels

We will not save our world from an ecological collapse (and thus an economic and social crisis unseen to that point of human history) by producing more, but greener. In our affluent societies, where most of us are enjoying a very good standard of living, we have to reduce our overall consumption level. And I am not talking about the consumption patterns of low-income families here – I am talking about those, who could afford it to downsize and to buy less. But in a world where growth is not means to an end, but rather an end in itself, where economic growth is the measure for a good life and where products are produced to break or go out of fashion faster than we can reflect on what we truly need, is it not too much to ask from us as individuals to simply refuse to participate in this? Should not also businesses encourage us to consume less?

‘Nice try’ you might think – why should businesses have any interest in not selling us more and new stuff every year? Isn’t that their business model? How would they survive otherwise? Good questions! Let’s ask ourselves some more questions: why should they be allowed to not care? Should they not accept liability for the resources they use and the social and ecological impact they have by producing and selling their products? I know these are hard questions, but they are necessary ones. And before you stop reading because it all just seems like wishful thinking, let me tell you that unicorns do exist! Not the fairytale ones with rainbow manes (although that would be kind of awesome), but companies that accept their responsibility to act and that redefine their purpose from the pursuit of profit towards having a positive impact on their community and the environment.

How do these new business models look like and how do they earn money? First of all: yes, they still earn money. There is no social business without business. But they do so within a corridor of social minimum standards (like fair wages) and a maximum of ecological impact (like CO2 emissions). This of course changes their business model from selling fast and cheap towards selling slower, but better. This can for example mean high quality products that are durable and repairable and that have a timeless design, so they won’t go out of fashion. It can also mean offering services such as renting, repairing or leasing, so we don’t have to buy new stuff all the time. A responsible way of doing business will also include consumer education and marketing that helps us reflect upon our needs rather than creating new ones. Most of all, however, it means a closer relationship to us citizens and consumers. Instead of an anonymous seller-buyer-relationship, we can build networks and communities including citizens, businesses and policy makers to jointly work on solutions and to create offers that are not only good for us, but also good for the planet.

Ultimately, the question will be: how much is enough? Enough to live a good life and enough to solve the climate crisis? Those two are interconnected and again, there won’t be a single answer (unless it’s 42, but then we still have to define the question). So, on our way there, instead of pointing fingers on one another who is in charge, let’s all assume some responsibility; whether we are politicians, business owners, freelancers, employees or a stay-home parents, everyone has a part in this and by working together rather than against each other, we can still make it. Let’s believe in unicorns!

Written by Maren Ingrid Kropfeld, Lecturer for our Bachelor’s programs International Business with Responsible Business and modules in the area of Sustainable Development.

Discover more about Maren’s work on https://mareningrid.wordpress.com/

*Karlshochschule is an educational institution and a non-profit organization as well. We want to encourage individuals and young people to take responsibility, find their own voice and initiate change in a sustainable and tolerant way. Listening to different opinions not only promotes different perspectives, but also discourse. The content of this blog is characterized by the diverse experience and opinions of the authors, which may not be the majority opinion of the university, but provokes reflection and discussion.

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