Strategic consumption is the recognition that the immediate, or tactical, effects of our purchases are of such limited power as to be essentially meaningless.
Bill Rees, who coined the term ecological footprint, says individual behavior changes in the absence a broader strategy for creating change are pointless:
"We're all on the same ship and what we do in our individual cabins is of almost no consequence in terms of the direction the ship is going."
But we've all got to buy things, and we quite rightly would rather that our dollars do as much good as they can. Hence the concept of strategic consumption: the practice of basing decisions not only on the immediate qualities of a product or service, but also on the changes buying them is likely to have in the broader world.
Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World With What You Buy -- Can we "buy a better future?" The green product industry says we can, if we buy the "right" things. But there are plenty of reasons to believe they're wrong.
Make This Earth Day Your Last! -- This year's Earth Day brought in an unprecedented frenzy of consumerism in the holiday-spirit of environmental concern. It's become, in essence, a celebration of small personal steps that pale in comparison to the problem they claim to tackle. We can do better.
Save the Buyosphere! - Consumer Behavior, By the Book -- Consumerism has a greater impact than we realize, not just on the environment, but on our health, our communities, even our happiness. We ask ourselves: How much is enough? But it can be hard to find the answer with the swift current of our consumption patterns moving us along.
I disagree with the notion that individual changes have almost no consequence. “Lead by example” may sound like a cliché but it’s true non-the less. If everybody thinks and acts like that, there will be no change what so ever. I made a conscience choice to buy a Smart card to commute and I can’t fill up my tank without somebody asking about the mileage of the car. Yes, it would be great if regulating bodies would set standards and guidelines on consumption and energy use, but until then, it might as well start with you!
Some great advice on this topic from Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, authors of the book, Your Money Or Your Life:
Don't go shopping.
It's fine to provision. When we need something, by all means we can buy it, with the mindfulness advocated in this post.
But many people go shopping - they wander the malls and Main Streets, credit cards in hand, looking for something, anything, to buy.
It's actually radical, strategic and mindful to buy only what you really need.
Absent strong government regulation of externalities, one persons' reduction of consumption simply makes goods cheaper for others who will gladly snap them up. This is the fallacy of individual direct action.
I'm all for buying fair trade goods, and cutting down on non-essentials. But let's not kid ourselves: "fair trade" has now become just another feel-good marketing moniker to justify paying a little more for the same goods. Since we cannot verify the "fair trade" status, we have to trust the labeler. Which makes it ripe for fraud. And even if not fraudulent, this only works in a small target population of so-called "conscious" consumers. Everyone else will respond to price alone.
The only thing that will make the difference in the broader market is the radical notion that the true costs of goods must be paid across the board, which will raise prices for everyone, initially. (Even then, the incentives to cheat will be overwhelming.) Such politically unpopular policies must be enacted at the government level, and incorporated into trade policy by world bodies such as the WTO. Or the market will continue to grind up the earth and everyone on it, in its relentless search of ever more hidden and clever ways to externalize costs.
My daughter's kindergarten class had a discussion on "needs" vs "wants". Candy or iPod is not a need - the kindergarten class understood that. Now how to educate the adults on the damage done by satisfying all the wants? How about an exploration of alternative ways of satisfying wants, and maybe even needs, that are less damaging (for example, through sharing and reuse)?
I agree with BlackSun that unless the true cost is reflected in the prices, it will be hard to change behavior in a meaningful way across the board.
Interestingly, since we've endeavored to be more deliberate in our choices (buying local, re and/or freecycling, buying used, moving toward a smaller carbon footprint) we're finding ourselves less compelled to "shop". I was in the mall for the first time recently in several months and found myself completely uninterested in going into ANY store. Given that we are very much apart of the consumerist society in which we were raised, we both found that a bit surprising. . .