Consumerism and why it hinders sustainable business

Let’s get one thing straight. Humans will continue to be the most widespread mammal on this earth. We will continue to require food, transport, energy and consumables. We will also continue to generate waste. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using earth’s resources and advancing technologies to make daily tasks simpler, but we need to start holding each other accountable for unsustainable practices. Despite the undeniable advent of global warming, destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, the practice of being wholly sustainable is often deemed a challenge beyond our capability and one that requires more time and finances that any human can give. The planet is not cheap, so why do we continue to expect easy solutions to global issues and cheap materials to solve them?

Last month, I was fortunate enough to attend an inspiring panel discussion hosted by the respective founders of Stay Wild Swim, DAME and Yogi Bare who each have sustainability at the forefront of their business. Principally, sustainability has a relatively simple definition such as the quality of being able to continue over a long period of time. However, within the walls of human social construct, one must consider environment sustainability within the context of economics – it just so happens that endorsing a capitalist society allows economic sustainability to have the upper hand. This needs to change. It needs to change now.

Whilst discussing the ups and downs of being young entrepreneurs in a world that is ill-prepped for supporting sustainable practice, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for previously expecting brands to justify their price tag. What makes the majority of us think we can purchase high quality products for a low financial price? Have all of us become completely detached from the true value of the product? It would appear so.

One criticism of sustainable practise that is tossed around (too much) is that is often expensive. This is fact. However, saving the planet and changing societal mindset does not require anyone to spend all their life-earnings on one product. Meanwhile, sustainable products will only reduce in price when the majority of people make it their priority to support sustainable development and make it mainstream.

Admittedly, as someone who had very little background in sustainability, I can sympathise with others who explain they have no idea where to begin. Adopting a more sustainable lifestyle will not happen overnight but one factor that I found made it easier was learning a little bit about what makes a product sustainable and researching the factors that contribute to the increased cost of sustainable production. These include:

  • Waste management policy
  • Use of renewable energy in production line
  • Resourcing recycled, eco-friendly raw materials*
  • Product packaging and low carbon shipping*

*These factors continue to be a huge uphill struggle for small sustainable business owners

Nevertheless, a quick disclaimer is in order. I am no businesswomen. Neither am I a politician or lawyer with extensive knowledge of environmental policy. Whilst legislation may dictate regulations regarding waste management and energy use, there continues to be be little demand on companies for transparency of supply chains. This would promote education of sustainable development. However, it seems as though capitalism discourages such change.

Therefore I ask you, who (if any) most responsible for committing to sustainability, the consumer or the business? Surely, social responsibility comes into play here. Then again, business are ultimately run by their consumers, are they not? Sustainability is a life-long investment we all need to get on board with.

Here are a few pointers to navigating the world of sustainable business. I have every intention to ask myself the same questions when purchasing my next pair of jeans, whenever that may be.

How might sustainable businesses tackle waste management?

One upcoming, sustainable business model that I have recently been introduced to is the ‘closed-loop’ system which confers the use of all output material as their future input materials. It is recycling without a third party. What’s not to support?

However, as you can imagine much of the focus in economic sustainability is on maintaining “operational aspects, rather than the larger strategic issues”. Additional stages that would be involved in supporting a closed-loop system include (i) product acquisition (distinct from recall), (ii) testing suitability of end-product materials for recycling into the original supply chain and (iii) remarketing. This means the brand loses out on a large profit margin as they would require more manpower and longer cooperative meetings. Unless, they increase their prices. However, this may mean they lose business due to competitive prices. Have I managed to convince you that consumerism is ignorant to ethical considerations out with legislation?

Otherwise, truly sustainable businesses rarely make products in bulk. Particularly, start-up businesses that may not be able to afford large amounts of material or those by which the product is homemade by one pair of hands. Avoiding mass production is undoubtedly going to reduce waste production however it does mean that the desired product may not immediately available in the exact size or colour that you want. However, what’s not to say that it may allow you to purchase a bespoke product. Check out Sewing with Sofia for a cute, bespoke, handmade, eco-friendly backpack!

A simple guide to reading the product labels

When it comes to labels, I am aware there are certain regulations dictating what information businesses must declare, particularly on food products. However, I fail to understand how sustainability labels are not a priority. When it comes to clothing, it’s also worth a quick peek at what fabric is used whether it be cotton, wool, silk or hemp, which are good candidates for sustainable fabrics.

However, polyester is a no-go.

Whilst polyester is fast-drying, less susceptible to shrinking and cheaper to produce, cotton products are kinder to the skin, sustainable and breathable. These two fabrics are often blended in fast fashion so be sure to aim for 100% cotton (silk or wool) products when investing sustainably.

PS. I’ve always been guilty for not reading the washing instructions but without a doubt, this is a must. It only takes 20 seconds and saves a lot of time, money and resources!

How does supporting sustainable business minimise the environmental impact of product shipping/packaging?

This one is easy – sustainable businesses often limit their operations to local custom. Investing in locally made produce is arguably the best way to lead a highly sustainable lifestyle.

Meanwhile, consumerism continues to sell the idea that the whole world of resources is at our fingertips. Why do we insist on buying a inorganic, non-eco-friendly and often underripe pineapple for our daily fruit salads when we could otherwise pick the raspberries off the plant outside? Overall, it worth considering where your product is being made, the chemicals used in production and whether the product’s packaging is single-use plastic.

Simply, current social priorities are faulted.

The prospect of creating a sustainable planet is a social responsibility from individual daily choices, to business models, to law and upholding global environmental regulations. Investment into reliable, durable products appears to be a long-lost mindset which we all need to start practising.

I must admit there is no simpleton’s guide to leading a sustainable life. A comment that I whole-heartedly appreciated from the panel was that very few products are 100% sustainable, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother scoping out the field. Current innovation is too often limited by metaphorical hoops and lack of cooperative investment. Therefore, small, sustainable businesses heavily rely on customer purchase to drive development. One thing that I have recently began to appreciate is the pure honesty and passion in the founders of sustainable businesses.

The ladies on the panel were so open and welcoming.

I can honestly say purchasing one of Stay Wild Swim’s t-shirts felt so personal and ever better yet, I know that product is timeless. Starting a sustainable business may be just about the most challenging aspiration to hold and the fact of the matter is that no great success story happens overnight. There is no doubt that maintaining a successful, sustainable business is more work than most of us can imagine particularly as it often requires long term investment, both by the consumer and business partners.

Whilst I could give you a million reasons why I hope to continue supporting small, local, sustainable, eco-conscious brands I would rather leave you with a few immediate changes you could make to adopt a less consumerist mindset and an equally more sustainable lifestyle:

  • Remember that a few imperfect, but conscious choices are better than none
  • Be inspired by or invest in second hand products

“The Good On You app rates clothing companies on environment, labour and animals and can give you a great idea of who to buy from” – Sofia Voudouroglou (founder of Sewing with Sofia)

  • Support charity shops, recycle clothing and sell old pieces at local car boot sale
  • Do not buy products containing microplastic beads, such as several highstreet face scrubs
  • Invest in washing bags that capture microplastics from clothing (e.g. the Guppy Friend)
  • Repair your clothes (or take them to your local tailor) instead of simply buying a new piece. Similarly, recycle your fabrics (to sewing friends or otherwise).

Find an independent tailor may seem like an impossible job nowadays, but they are not as expensive as you many initially think and they will undoubtably be able to save your favourite pair of jeans. I bet you’d be surprised by how many of your friends have simultaneously taken up sewing.

  • Be on the lookout for natural fabrics
  • Try to handwash clothing and crockery as much as you can (this saves energy, often keeps products as ‘fresh’ as possible and doesn’t release any harmful chemicals into the environment! Win, win, win!)

Featured Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

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