Some say not buying anything is the most sustainable thing we can do. But if every purchase we make is a vote for how we want businesses to act in the world--does not buying anything just mean we're sitting out the election?
My mom and girlfriend would roll their eyes at me. My clothes were always in tatters. Holey jeans (and not the cool kind that come pre-ripped, like ones ripped way too much, and ripped in bad spots…). Worn out shirts I’d had for like 15 years. They’d practically beg me to let them buy me new clothes.
“Nah, I’m good.”
“I said no ok?”
“Look I’m sorry, I don’t want new clothes. They were all made in some sweatshop somewhere. Maybe with child labor. I don’t want that on my back.”
And then I’d add this line, something I now hear from people more since founding DoneGood:
“The most sustainable thing we can do is to stop buying stuff!”
I now think that statement is incorrect.
Why buying stuff can be bad
I think I had good reasons for refusing to get new things. The more we consume, the more things get made, and every little “thing” takes energy and resources to produce. The more we’re conditioned to buy incessantly and quickly toss stuff into the landfill, the greater the negative impact on the environment.
Major multinationals and their multi-billion-dollar ad agencies are really good at making us believe we need things. Giant fast fashion companies have got this down to a science. They’re producing five times—five times—as many articles of clothing as they were in the 1980. They convince us that we have to have the latest fashion trends and they now work very hard to change the trends more quickly. They purposefully make stuff cheaper and shoddier so that it doesn’t last as long, keeping us on a spinning hamster wheel of constant consumption.
And of course, they’re able to crank out stuff so quickly and cheaply because they’ve built mass-production systems and supply chains that destroy the planet and lock workers into toiling in dangerous conditions for poverty wages.
So I don’t think I was totally wrong for not wanting to support those systems.
But was my desire to never buy anything the best solution?
Why making purchases can be good—and critically important
Rather than retreating from the economy, more and more people are infiltrating the system to change it. They’re starting their own brands determined to prove that another way of doing business is possible.
Brands like Yoga Democracy, making really cool yoga gear printed with designs created by local artists in a zero-waste facility in the USA, with a portion of every purchase supporting environmental non-profits.
Or like Deux Mains, a brand making fashionable sandals, belts, bags and accessories out of used tires that would otherwise end up in a landfill, as well as other upcycled and locally-sourced materials in a 100% solar-powered facility in Haiti that provides good wages for workers there.
The Starfish Project helps women escape sex trafficking and become economically independent with good jobs making jewelry, and skills training that helps them move on to professional careers. Prosperity Candle creates high-quality, non-toxic candles, each one hand-poured by refugees who have relocated to the U.S. earning a living wages and creating a brighter future for their families. The more we buy from brands like these, the more lives they can transform.
Companies like these also tend to make higher-quality, longer lasting products. Items that are handmade by artisans earned a living wage, by eco-conscious brands, tend to last longer than the stuff mass-produced in a giant fast fashion factory somewhere. So that means less consumption over the long run.
Social enterprises like these are on a mission to prove that businesses can be successful and be a force for good at the same time. It is true these businesses all have some kind of carbon footprint—but so does every human activity, including the activity of every nonprofit organization. Does that mean it’s more sustainable to avoid donating to nonprofits altogether? No, not if, on the whole, the amount of carbon emissions the nonprofit’s activities creates is far outweighed by the other good they do in the world.
Similarly, avoiding making any purchases from social enterprises altogether is not “the most sustainable thing we can do.” On the contrary, supporting socially and environmentally responsible brands helps create the kind of systemic economic transformation we need to address major problems like climate change and global poverty.
The more we make purchases from brands that do good for people and the planet, the more they succeed. The more they succeed, the more other companies follow suit. The day that all businesses in the world pay living wages, invest in communities, have exceptionally ecofriendly practices—problems like climate change and economic inequality will be solved. Every time we make a purchase from a mission-driven company we take one step closer to that world.
If every purchase we make is a vote we cast for the kind of businesses we want to exist in the world, never buying anything is tantamount to sitting out the election. If those of us who care about social and environmental justice withdraw from the economy, then only those who don’t care are left buying—and then businesses will respond to the preferences of only those consumers.
To tackle a challenge like climate change, we need major systemic change throughout our economy. As long as there are still going to be businesses, we need to change the way those businesses operate, and fast. We need huge numbers of businesses to overhaul their business practices to become way more ecofriendly. Some businesses may change their practices out of a sense of duty. But far more will change in response to consumer demand.
The good news is, this change is starting to occur. The number of social enterprises is exploding, and even major corporations are beginning to respond to increasing consumer demand for more sustainable. ecofriendly, organic, fair trade, ethically-made products.
We started DoneGood to help people accelerate this economic revolution. In a supply and demand economy, consumers have all the power—whatever we demand, the market supplies. We believe that actively participating in the business-as-a-force-for-good movement with our purchasing power is the most powerful tool we have to create change. With DoneGood hope to make it easier for people to wield their immense power for good.
So, the irony is… a guy who once tried to avoid buying anything started a business that helps people buy stuff. That’s still a little weird for me. I came from the activist/NGO/political world. I don’t want to be a “salesman”. I don’t want people to buy things they won’t get a lot of good use out of or that will end up in a landfill soon. But, I admire people who start social enterprises. They’ve all taken incredible risk to start something they truly believe in. I believe in the missions of their individual businesses, and the larger movement they’re a part of. So I wanted to fight alongside them and help them survive, thrive, and grow their ranks. And I admire conscious consumers who support brands like these, and want to help make it easier for them to do so.
I still don’t think we ought to go overboard buying stuff we won’t use that’ll quickly end up in a landfill. I still wear some of the holey jeans and old shirts. My mom and my girlfriend still complain about it sometimes.
But now, I appreciate it when they buy me things from ethical and sustainable companies. And I buy myself new outfits and items for the house and other things too, as long as I think I’ll use those items for a while. And I no longer feel bad about that. Instead I feel good knowing that I’m helping good people’s businesses succeed, and taking part in what I believe to be the most exciting, important, hopeful movement of our time—the march toward a new economy that fuels, rather than hinders, social and environmental justice.