Think about the last thing you purchased. Whether it was a car, a cardigan or a carrot, what were the main considerations in deciding your purchase? Like most people they were likely what you would get out of it. Whether the car would fit your family, the cardigan was cheap or whether the carrot looked good enough to eat.
Buying things is a personal decision. You exchange money you’ve earned for a good or service that you need or desire. Businesses thrive by encouraging us to purchase their products and our economy grows through greater consumption. In other words, framing the act of purchasing as simply a personal decision is good for business.
Yet the simple exchange of money for goods or services connects us to a whole chain of production with many inputs of labour and resources and which often reaches around the world. It can also have hidden costs that we don’t consider or aren’t even told about. What are the carbon emissions of that car? Was the person who made that cardigan paid a livable wage? Has that carrot passed cosmetic standards which reject less good looking carrots from sale causing food waste? All of this is obscured by the ease and convenience of purchasing online or in a shop and behind smart marketing and branding which motivates based on emotion and self-interest.
What’s worse is that often the true costs of the things we buy are not included in the price we pay which means that the cost is born by something or someone else. For instance, the carbon emissions from a large car contribute to climate change which future generations and the poor will bear a greater cost. A fast fashion cardigan might be cheap because the Bangladeshi woman who made it is paid a low wage and works in unhealthy or exploitative conditions. Food waste caused by supermarkets’ cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables contributes to climate change and wastes the resources it took to grow the food.
This isn’t to say that if everyone made ethical purchases we would solve the inequities of business and the economy. Solving these issues will also require activism, legislation, changes in business models, cultures and accountability and technological advances. What is important though is that we frame and understand the act of purchasing not as an isolated unit of economic activity or as simply a personal act but as inherently social and environmental. Every time we buy something we are having an impact on the world. And this view needs to permeate our culture, business and government.
Luckily we’ve already started. We’re twigging to the health impacts of what we buy and businesses are responding with everything from more yoga classes to an ever expanding range of health foods. So too awareness of environmental impacts is leading to more environmentally friendly products like electric vehicles, ethical clothing or vegetarian, fair trade and organic foods.
The greater our understanding of the impacts of our purchases and the more we see the act of purchasing as connecting us to the world the more we can not only reduce our impact on others and the planet but help them.