am i a consumerist consumerism capitalism resource consumption
Image Credit: Daniel Oines (CC BY 2.0)

That’s been the thought rattling around in my head the past few weeks. I know that I live in a wealthy and industrialized nation. I know that the United States has second highest carbon emissions in the world. Plus, I know that I live in a nation where I have an obscene amount of opportunities to over consume the ultimately limited resources our world has.

Clearly, I am in a situation where it is easy to over consume my fair share.

But as someone who works in a resource conservation field (electricity), I like to think that I limit my impact as much as possible. I like to believe that I have taken to heart an individual responsibility to limit my personal consumption.

But how do I know if I’m guilty of the crime of hyper-consumption? I do live in a nation ripe for such blithe behavior. How much consumption is acceptable for one person? How would you even measure such a thing?

I find it supremely difficult to get hard numbers on my own levels of resource consumption. For example, if I buy an apple pie from the store did the apples in that pie come from nearby Pennsylvania or the very far away New Zealand? Same question for the wheat and the dairy. Were the eggs from an operation actively managing its waste run off to avoid pollution issues in nearby water ways? What about the energy mix used by the store’s utility provider? Was the oven running on electrons from mainly wind and solar? Or was it coal and fracked gas? If I ask, will the store package the pie in something other than a plastic that can’t be recycled?

Maybe I just shouldn’t buy pie.

But this example points to a larger issue of consumption in the industrialized world: How do you know what impact you are having? Unless companies go out of their way to identify goods as “locally produced,” it’s basically impossible to know what level of resource use went into creating every day purchases. Even if you buy local products, were all the component parts “locally produced?” What about the equipment and the supplies for production?

This “impact obfuscation” is one of the negative consequences of a globalized economy. It is purposeful and it is systematic of a consumerist system which never wants to give customers reasons to stop and think through the chain of consequences a purchase can have. This systematic failing needs to be addressed. Companies may occasionally communicate this type of information, but it’s typically in the form of what they are not doing and it’s only ever in ways they think will help the bottom line.

At the same time, individual consumers have a responsibility to monitor the environmental impact their consumption has. Though many economists will tell you the only thing consumers care about is the lowest price, there are examples that show consumers may be willing to pay more for “guilt-free” purchases. So clearly a balance of individual and corporate responsibility has to exist here. Pinning the onus solely on one or the other would be a failure from the start. So, what to do?

Having a guide to the environmental cost of goods could help lift “impact obfuscation”. If such a guide were easily accessible, self-education on consumption impacts would be less daunting. It would also allow people to change their personal consumption habits and convey information about total environmental impact.

Those of in in the developed world are already familiar with a similar form of impact labeling on many of our products: nutrition labels.

Nutrition labels on food give consumers an understanding of the impact eating that food will have on themselves personally. A label explaining the impact that buying the food (or any other product) has on the world around them it not much of a stretch. It would enable a transparent way to comparison shop based on environmental impact. This type of suggestion has been made before,

and while not without its share of implementation difficulties, it’s an idea that has had traction.

Such a label could list water consumption, carbon emissions, material source, material harvest methods, total distance traveled for all components, contributions to air pollution, and marks of merit or demerit for certain progressive or destructive practices respectively. A labeling program like this would have to be administered by some centralized and neutral authority, but it would provide much needed information to a growing number of consumers who want to ensure they are living with as little environmental impact as can be reasonably expected.

Consumers like myself, who are made morally and ethically queasy at the inability to know exactly what our impact is. If the items that I was purchasing noted how much carbon was emitted in their production and transportation, I would be able to start and keep a personal carbon budget for instance. Most importantly, it would allow me to understand my most environmentally destructive habits and act out of personal responsibility to limit them.

Reliable, centralized guidance on the consequences of my actions so I can make the best choices possible. Having that information would give me and other individuals the power to affect change. Individuals could make better choices and hold companies to a higher environmental standard. If standardized nutrition labels have created a paradigm shift in the health world, what could a similar system do in the environmental one?

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