Do Companies Have a Responsibility to Curb Our Consumption?
This time of year, at least in the US but I suspect in other countries as well, retail season sets in and it feels like everywhere you go, people are either buying things, or talking about buying things, or touting a sale they got buying things. I feel like I can't escape it. My inbox has been bombarded with sale emails (I deleted them all like I promised). My dental hygienist spent the majority of my recent cleaning sharing with me how difficult it is for her this time of year working extra shifts so she can get her kids the things they want for Christmas. Things, she admitted, whose novelty is wearing off on them faster and faster each year.
As you probably know by now hanging out around here as you do (thanks!) I have a complicated relationship with consumption, especially when it comes to fashion. I love investing in beautiful clothes, and I believe in financially supporting creativity and craftsmanship. But I am also aware of the dark sides of consumption- the empty feeling that consumption takes advantage of, the environmental and social consequences, the fact that ultimately, as scary as it might be to admit, we can't buy our way to anything that really matters in life.
As I continue to question my relationship with consumption, I periodically try different things. Recently, I skipped out the Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales. I've tried fashion fasts and other kooky things and the bottom line is this: I always hold myself accountable for my buying behavior. But this sale season, I've been wondering: in addition to ourselves, should we also hold companies accountable for how much we consume?
A few years ago, on Black Friday, Patagonia put the following ad in the New York Times:
In case you can't see the text clearly, it reads:
It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet.
Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time—and leave a world inhabitable for our kids—we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.
Environmental bankruptcy, as with corporate bankruptcy, can happen very slowly, then all of a sudden. This is what we face unless we slow down, then reverse the damage. We’re running short on fresh water, topsoil, fisheries, wetland—all our planet’s natural systems and resources that support business, and life, including our own.
The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing. Consider the R2® Jacket shown, one of our best sellers.
To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.
And this is a 60% recycled polyester jacket, knit and sewn to a high standard; it is exceptionally durable, so you won’t have to replace it as often. And when it comes to the end of its useful life we’ll take it back to recycle into a product of equal value. But, as is true of all the things we can make and you can buy, this jacket comes with an environmental cost higher than its price.
There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.
Pretty radical stuff, no? I, for one, think it's the future of business. Consumption not as a free for all, but as something measured and appropriate. "Don't buy what you don't need" as the foundation for a more compassionate economy- one that starts to value people and planet over profit, as opposed to the other way around. So why don't more companies do this? Why don't more companies believe this is their responsibility?
Well, I think the short answer is, unfortunately, that in our less than ideally regulated free market system, companies follow a single guiding principle: profit. Fast food was an epidemic in this country (it still is in some ways, but the trends are encouraging) until consumer behavior started shifting towards healthier eating habits and now the same fast food restaurants that resisted offering healthier options years ago are doing so. Not out of benevolence, but for the sake of profitability. Companies follow our dollars. Patagonia is an outlier- a company stepping ahead of the industry because of a deeply held ideology on the role of business in society. And for that, they deserve our support all the more. But other companies can be swayed, too, by our spending habits. So I consume wisely. Whenever possible, I support companies that deserve to be supported. I don't buy what I don't need and I take care of what I do buy. Small buying decisions add up. So do small decisions not to buy. Whether companies do their part or not to curb our consumption, we can always do ours. And when we do, I suspect they won't be far behind.
Are you shopping this retail season? Are you taking a pass? Have the sales lured you in? Has all the talk of buying turned you off? Let's talk about it.