Can We Be Conscious Consumers Under Capitalism?


Last week, the Swedish oat milk company, Oatly, came under fire for claiming to be a sustainable company yet accepting an investment from Blackstone Growth, a company that directly contributes to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. I, like many others, drink Oatly not only for the taste, but to avoid dairy and try to be more environmentally conscious (oat milk takes the least amount of resources to produce compared to dairy and other non-dairy milk). While I’m open to trying other brands, Oatly is of great quality, arguably the best pairing for coffee, and is at a reasonable price point. So, is it ethical to buy Oatly? What is the weight of a single purchase? What if I switch brands but buy less sustainably made milk?

Questions like these are difficult, if not impossible, for the individual consumer to answer. Your average consumer may not even research that deeply into the products they’re buying. A popular phrase to describe this conundrum is, “ethical consumerism under capitalism is impossible.” I agree with this statement. However, I think there’s still an argument to be made for conscious consumption.

  1.  Being a conscious consumer means you’re taking ethics into account, but with the acknowledgment that you can’t be an ethical consumer. Being a conscious consumer resists being a perfect capitalist consumer, where you are a hyper-consumer who doesn’t question how a company makes its product. I believe everyone should at least be aware of the trust cost of the product they’re purchasing. We owe it to the people (many of whom are women and children) who are working in dangerous conditions with unfair wages. We owe it to those trapped in modern-day slavery who produce our chocolate, our technology, and other things we use and rely on every day. We owe it to migrant workers who pick our produce yet face deportation, criminalization, and unfair working conditions due to companies exploiting their immigrant status. And, we owe it to all the animals experiencing undue pain and suffering in factory farming. I’d rather know than be ignorant. Plus, awareness is a stepping stone for advocating and hopefully changing the system.
  2. Being a conscious consumer creates a market demand for sustainability. It’s an unfortunate truth, but buying sustainable options is often more expensive. Even if the products save you money in the long run, there’s often a bigger cost upfront (Ex: reusable coffee filters vs. paper ones, reusable menstrual products vs. disposable, etc.). When I’m able, I try to spend the extra cash on sustainable products. The more demand there is for sustainable products, the more competition arises between companies, which means prices are driven down. Granted, some sustainable products may always be more expensive. For one, reusable items need to be of good quality, and these materials are costlier. The product’s price also reflects the fair wage that everyone in the supply chain is paid. Ideally, people would take those costs into consideration. That being said, we should never judge others for not paying more for sustainable items, because you don’t know an individual’s financial situation or personal life circumstances. Nobody should agonize over relatively small changes. Just contribute when you can, and try and allocate some of your funds to the betterment of Earth.
  3. Being a conscious consumer feels good. It may sound selfish, but I think taking small steps to lighten your impact on the planet helps with eco-anxiety--or the fear of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact, taking action is one of the best ways to deal with eco-anxiety (and, I would argue, the best way to deal with anxiety about our world in general). Of course, a systemic way to take action is voting for people who support climate action and want to make oil companies like Exxon accountable for their emissions. But there are also little changes we can make every day that add up over the course of our lives. Even if I can’t fix the whole world, I would like to keep my impact on the earth as light as possible. It’s the Girl Scout in me: leave the palace better than you found it!

I know I’m not perfect, and I know that some of my decisions have more impact than others, like eliminating as many car trips as possible versus using a plastic straw. I know I will always contribute to waste and resource consumption. But compared to other countries, Americans take up the most resources per person than any other place in the world. The average American will use 53 times more goods and services than the average Chinese individual. The least we could do with the privilege of living in a hyper-consumerist society is to not take more than we truly need. My favorite quote to sum up all this is by Shelby, a low-waste Youtuber. She ends every video with the line, “You cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good you can do.”