Cortney Anderson, Pomona College
For me, the transition to college was a difficult one. Aside from being far away from home, I also gained immense amounts of knowledge that drastically changed my ethics, my practices, and my worldview. This was simultaneously refreshing and unsettling. After taking introductory courses and electives in sociology, including a Sociology of Consumption course, I started to see myself as not just an individual, but a participant socialized in a consumer culture. I began to learn how consumer ideologies and consumption habits affect the world. I was ashamed to learn that by both shopping at and working for Forever 21, I was implicated in the abuse and degradation of sweatshop workers less than an hour away from where I now attend school. I was surprised to learn that my family’s ritualistic trips to Starbucks supported a transnational corporation that actively oppresses its coffee farmers and wastes innumerable amounts of natural resources every year—all in the name of profit. I was angered to learn that my trusted source for always-low-price school supplies, dorm decorations and food is owned by a family who have more wealth than approximately 42 percent of American families combined. I became overwhelmed. How could I possibly keep all these things in mind at once?
As now-independent adults who barely get by, I find that I, and many of my friends on campus find it hard to be “ethical consumers” in a capitalist system. With everything we manage in our daily routines, it can be difficult to take time to be considerate of our effects on an unjust system that thrives on one-dimensional thinking. This thinking is characterized as an inability or unwillingness to critically question the inner workings of social institutions, especially corporations. We students are just trying to “make it” in the real world. We are purposely fed stuff faster than we can process the implications of our consumption. In interest of the greater good, we must recognize that in some cases, by buying into false needs and by remaining loyal consumers is to consent and support the abuses that occur to benefit a select few.
Sure, there exist well-meaning corporations who aim to change the status quo, but without the proper analytic tools, it is hard to tell the honest from the green-washed. It takes a certain level of consciousness and purposeful commitment to consistently see outside of ourselves in an incredibly individualizing society. Ethical consumption is indeed a privilege that not many have. Some have not the opportunities to see how corporations operate under the guise of universalness; prior to college, I sure didn’t have the tools, capacity or time to pursue questions like where my food and clothes came from, or to consider that for every privilege I have there are so many without. I am thankful that the college setting allowed me to discover that everyday behaviors can be transformed into small gestures towards change, hopefully urging others to follow suit.
Perhaps, to remove large words and philosophies from the equation, we can instead conceptualize ethical consumption as mindfulness and social awareness. This means to be mindful and aware of what we eat, where we shop, our daily activities, to separate wants from true needs. To be mindful members of society means to be cautious of how our activities affect others who we may be physically and socially distant from.
It is not as easy as it sounds and I am not at all a professional at ethical consumption. It is hard to take on this individualized responsibility of being mindful of everyday consumption habits, especially as a student who is strapped for cash. But one important thing to keep in mind is that money, while it may be at the center of a lot of issues, need not be the solution to a lot of issues, which is contrary to the one that green-washed corporations have tried to sell us. Instead, two things that have helped me become more conscious are being around people that challenge my thinking, and reconnecting with the outdoors.
Being on a campus with student groups committed to sustainability issues has helped alleviate some of the personal pressures I have felt. These student groups encourage us to prioritize the conservation of water, electricity, and food. I will not deny that it is a privilege to be in an environment with both like-minded people and people who challenge my thinking, but I imagine that building communities around consumption issues is easier than we think, especially with the pervasiveness of technology. For example, in light of the current drought in California that has left so many communities without water to bathe or cook with, students on this campus remind each other to conserve through posters, print media, social events, and Facebook advertising. Without the constant discourse around campus, I may not have gotten into the habit of turning off water while brushing my teeth or washing my hair, or being adamant about finishing water and food that I take, or trying to avoid clothing stores that I know to exploit their workers. I then take this knowledge and share it with others. These individualized efforts become community-wide gestures and demonstrate how the little things can ripple out to make a difference.
Periodically getting away from the very environment in which we have been conditioned can also be incredibly eye-opening. Recently, on a backpacking trip through Sequoia National Forest, I was able to reconnect with nature for a while and see parts of the world less tainted by human activity. By hiking all our necessary gear by foot for a three-day weekend, we only took what we needed. Along the way, our group reminded one another, over and over, to “leave no trace,” which meant we packed out all our trash and toiletries, ate only as much as we could carry, left no food scraps so as not to affect the natural habitat, and of course, went without showers for two nights. These small changes in my daily behaviors forced me to question the necessity of my usual consumption habits.
Mindfulness in the context of consumption need not be a private, individualized thing. In fact, it works best if it is not. It is true that every individual can make a difference, but I believe it takes many collectives to make real change. While mindful consumption can be hard in a college setting, it is also the perfect place to learn and practice.