If you’re active on social media, you’re likely familiar with the idea that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” This is a relatively arguable statement, but writing that in the caption of your $200 SHEIN haul on TikTok is frankly an inappropriate use of the term. What the term should define more specifically is that those who have been wronged by the capitalist system—those roughly 689 million people in the world currently living in abject poverty— are not given the opportunity to consume ethically and sustainably.
Truly ethical and affordable consumption is difficult to come by and a privilege to attain, particularly in the clothing industry. But the issue of overconsumption and its associated emissions lies not in the inability to source ethical goods and products but the affinity of North Americans to buy, buy and buy even when their closets are overflowing with mass-produced articles of clothing.
The United States is, of course, an advantageous nation in relation to others and with relatively more wealth than its Southern Hemisphere counterparts. As such, the carbon footprint of the average American is 9.5 hectares, which overshadows the world average of 2.7 hectares almost fourfold. China and India, two similarly large and populous countries, are both far below the world average at 2.1 and 1.0 hectares, respectively.
The consequences of overconsumption cannot be placed only on the consumer but also on the industries they purchase from. We’re enabled by $2 tops on fast-fashion websites, cell phones designed to malfunction two years into their lifespan and other forms of planned obsolescence apparent in just about any goods industry on the map. The methods of these industries to keep you coming back inherently causes more waste and expends far more energy and precious resources than would be needed to manufacture a sturdy, reliable product designed to function for years to come.
As with most things, though, this issue is not black and white. The responsibility to consume reasonably and conscientiously falls on the consumer themselves. Buying a new wardrobe every season, for example, is an actively unsustainable action, and we should try to encourage others and ourselves to invest in pieces of clothing that can be worn again and again and have that timeless quality that will last through the seasons of fashion. Buying clothes second-hand is also a simple and enjoyable way to reduce your carbon footprint and eliminate the need for transportation costs and emissions altogether.
Taking sustainability initiatives by goods industries at face value may seem like these large companies are actually making waves in terms of creating less pollution and waste of energy in their supply chains, such as brands like H&M. However, no amount of company policy or transparency will erase the culture America has ingrained in it of the compulsive need to consume. Until that shifts, sustainable initiatives will only be a band-aid on the symptoms created by the greater issue of widespread overconsumption.
In other words, we can’t directly control how these industries we purchase from are affecting the planet, but we can control how much we choose to do so.