Socially Conscious Consumerism: A Strip Mall of Brand Anxiety

A relatively new phenomenon of the 21st century is the embedding of consumer social responsibility into popular culture. At first an object of academic study in relation to corporate social responsibility, consumer social responsibility concerns itself with consumer decisions and ethics. For example, are you morally responsible for buying Nike Airs made with the fresh, tiny hands of an Indian child? The decline of Nike in the early 2000s as a result of a brand image associated with poor labour conditions suggests that a growing number of consumers wanted to make ethical purchases. Since then, an alternative capitalism around ethical consumer goods has grown to fill the lowest common denominator markets. Enter the era of the KeepCup.

To find out what ANU students thought about the issue, we hit the campus for some on the ground reporting.  

‘My newfound confidence comes in my exquisite cork KeepCup. It’s a pro-environment fancy, which mostly carries coffee, and sometimes my hopes and dreams for the direction of mankind – plastic free, garden cities, climate change resolved. Before I had my KeepCup, I felt really bad and ugly because of the damage I was doing to the environment. Now, when I pick up my coffee to drive in my RAV4 whilst carrying my slave labour Louis Vuitton bag and 2400 watt touchscreen laptop, I know my sips are righteous.

Look, I know it’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but until the government decides to finally take action, I’m just doing what I can as a student and an individual. I’m definitely a better person now.’

– Faith Viper, Law student, originally from Neutral Bay, Sydney, enjoys Riesling.

‘When Patagonia ran that ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ ad, man, I just had to cop one. The whole message of reducing consumption, questioning the nature of consumer demand, fashion as signification and all that – that’s who I am, you feel me?  After taking this political philosophy class, I realised that I’m against the whole oppressive white supremacist capitalist structure and like I really think we could fight it all grassroots like starting from what we consume. If we get enough traction, we could really do some good.

I’m supporting Patagonia because they just feel me. I’m real passionate about the environment so I picked up a brand new Patagonia polar fleece jacket in cerulean – the colour of the salty waves and my beautiful eyes.’

– Thom Iscariot, postgraduate student at the Fenner School, staunchly Tasmanian, owns a longboard.

‘One problem I see with socially conscious consumerism is with the focus on replacing one consumer good with another less problematic one whilst supporting the same mode of consumption. The KeepCup forces us into a false dichotomy: continue using disposable coffee cups thus being complicit in bringing the planet to ruin or switch to a KeepCup to save the world. Meanwhile the global reduction of disposable coffee cups due to KeepCup ownership is a trivial fraction of total disposable coffee cups (approx. 0.00044% according to the KeepCup website). In reality, we should be acting in ways to subvert and disrupt the structures of capitalism which lie at the roots of our contemporary environmental and social problems. Compared to socially conscious consumption, political action may not have immediately visible effects but will marginally increase the probability of dismantling these unjust structures. Furthermore … .’

– Based Flowers, Professor of Over-explaining Art and Poststructural Basket Weaving, born in Connecticut, USA, owns three cats.

Ultimately, socially conscious consumption is still consumption. We live in times of mass differentiation. Instagram is essentially a consensual hallucination – a hyper-reality consisting of curated and phantasmal representations of real people, products, and lifestyles now disconnected from the real physical world. So virtual spaces act as simulacra of real world markets within which a previously top-down marketing structure has become decentralised, absorbed, and propagated by consumers to other consumers. This applies even for lowest common denominator goods, from toilet paper to coffee cups. Demand is increasingly dominated and generated by a desire to consume particular images and signs. Since this desire cannot be satisfied by physical products, a possibly infinite chain of products can be marketed to us.

In the case of socially conscious consumption, the site of consumption involves replacing particular goods with another that possesses an image of being more ethical. Consumer goods can be infinitely differentiated and so our identity of a socially conscious consumer is never complete. Replacing one good with an eco-friendly one temporarily satisfies us until the next site of consumer environmentalism is encountered.

Certainly there are socially conscious alternatives that have non-trivial impact, such as Tesla Powerwall, which is efficient enough to allow one to live ‘off the grid’, or switching to an electric car and vastly decreasing one’s carbon footprint. Yet most options which are financially available to university students fall short. Consider Who Gives a Crap, which offers eco-friendly toilet paper and sends half of their profits to sanitation projects overseas. Instead of paying a dollar a roll, why not buy regular rolls of recycled toilet paper and at the end of the year, donate the money you would have saved to the charity of your choice? Charities are evaluated to make your choosing even easier at givewell.org.

Better yet, why allow ourselves to believe that in order to help ‘save the environment’ our options are limited to replacing one particular good with another claiming to be more environmentally friendly? The law follows culture. France banned the use of disposable plastics; will the KeepCup have a future in France?