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Campus Ministry

How to Be a Conscious Consumer during the Holidays

By Aileen Hull, Senior Sociology major with minors in Sustainability, Energy and the Environment, Spanish, and Human Rights Studies

As we enter into the holiday and gift-giving season, we must be conscious of how and what we are buying. It is hard to avoid the constant messages to buy this, buy that, ads telling us that we need things. A capitalism centered on consumerism seems to be an inescapable pressure in our culture. But the Catholic faith is built upon the ideas of being aware of what is going on around us and who is being impacted. We must recognize our interconnectedness with every person and the land we all share, and in turn, how we impact it. Catholic Social Teaching explains seven principles of how we are called to live in our world. One is about the care for God’s creation and explains how we are called to be stewards of creation and not dominators of it. Another is about the Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers, which calls for basic rights for workers including fair wages and treatment and the right to organize. These principles also remind us that the economy is meant for the people, not for never-ending monetary gain. These ideas are also the basis of ethical and sustainable living, something absolutely critical as we face the climate crisis and environmental injustices. We are made to stand up for these issues and one real way to do that is to be conscious consumers. This means educating ourselves on brands and products before buying. 

If you think about shopping like voting, this makes sense. It does not make sense to go to the polls without knowing who you are voting for or even who is on the ballot. It is best to look up who is running and what they stand for so that you can make a choice based on what you believe. The research might take some extra time, but it is critical because it makes your decision informed. This is a good mindset to take to the store. Voting with your dollar is more powerful than many people realize. Choosing to buy a product packaged in compostable material instead of plastic may seem small, for example, but companies literally rely on their consumers to continue their business. So they are bound to listen and become aware of what consumers are looking for. The more people who show that sustainability and ethical production matter to them, the more pressure that puts on companies to adapt. Conscious consumerism means being aware of the ways companies exploit people and harm the land and refusing to be complacent with that knowledge. 

As the holidays approach and we do more shopping, here is a list of things to keep in mind before shopping:  

  • Think beyond material things. Consider giving experiences, such as movie tickets or national parks passes. Gift cards sometimes feel like a cop-out, especially when I want to give a personal gift. But there are ways to personalize gift cards. Think about more unique gift cards or specific places. For example, if you are giving to someone in college, look up the walkable food spots and get them a gift card to one of those. The website giftly (https://www.giftly.com/) allows you to choose a gift card for just about anything. You can choose from a list of fun ideas (such as car service or a spa day or coffee) and then enter an area where the recipient lives. This is a more fun and personalized way to give a gift card! 
  • Buy for quality. Many products today are designed cheaply so that low prices will attract consumers. When they break down, we can just buy another one because the price is affordable. But before being swayed by low prices, think, how is this so cheap? Whenever there are extremely low prices, it is important to be wary of how it is possible to have such low prices. Oftentimes it is because the labor to create the product was cheap--the people who made the products were paid low wages so that we can benefit.  Think about how and who made products before buying. Being able to think about the faces behind products is a key part of being a conscious consumer. 
  • Think beyond Amazon. Amazon has several ethical issues. It is the biggest online retailer, but avoids almost all taxes because it is based in a tax haven. There are accounts of poor worker treatment and low wages for workers. They also release very little information about their environmental impacts, which raises red flags. If you do buy from Amazon, try as much as possible to avoid rush shipping or buying last minute. Delivery people are overworked and there is a shortage of many products right now due to the rift in the supply chain. We should try to shift our mindset from expecting that there is an unlimited amount of everything and that we can get it instantly. This requires a little more planning ahead and collective thought, but it is also an attainable shift of mindset. 
  • Avoid fast fashion. Brands and stores known for their cheap clothing (such as Walmart, Shein, H&M, Old Navy, American Eagle) often exploit workers and the land. Instead, consider thrifting. There are countless alternatives. Online thrift stores (thredUP, poshmark, etc.) as well as physical thrift stores allow you to shop second-hand clothes, disincentivizing the creation of more clothes and keeping textiles out of landfills (which is a major problem). Thrift stores are also more affordable and allow for unique fashion. Or, if you are buying for someone else and do not want to get secondhand clothes, there are many stores that are committed to sustainability and workers' rights. Look for certified B Corporations (https://bcorporation.net/), which are companies deemed as sustainable and inclusive. Look on a website’s policies on sustainability. Here are some online clothing stores that make their clothes from recycled and sustainable materials: Wolven (https://wolventhreads.com/), Girlfriend Collective (https://girlfriend.com/). Beyond Retro collects second-hand vintage name brand items secondhand and resells them (https://www.beyondretro.com/collections/brands-champion). Coalatree makes outdoor gear from unique recycled materials, such as coffee grounds! (https://coalatree.com/).
  • Buy Fairtrade. Fairtrade is a certification for companies that ensures they use fair labor and payment practices, transparency, environmentally sound practices, no forced labor or child labor, among other standards. Basically, a Fairtrade label means the producers met strict social, economic, and environmental standards. Each brand verified as Fairtrader will have their logo on it.
  • Shop locally. Buying locally often means supporting small businesses and often that means more local materials or locally grown foods. Further, when you shop at small businesses, there is typically more transparency about where things come from and how they are made. There are many apps for individual cities that help you identify local businesses. For Dayton, you can download the free VisitDayton app that lets you know about restaurants, events, and more. You can also look around for markets and fairs around Christmas time with local products! Look for companies that offer carbon-neutral shipping and use paper materials for packing instead of plastic. Many sites will advertise this at the top of their website. Some of my favorite local sustainable companies or businesses that would be great for the holidays:
    • Plaine Products (women-owned, Cincinnati based, carbon-neutral, no plastic, reusable bottles that they reuse)
    • Partial to Pie (located close to UD, on Wilmington Pike, they use as much locally sourced ingredients as possible and compost all their waste, mainly compostable packaging)
    • Reduce and Reuse Refilley, https://www.reducereuserefillery.com/ (mobile zero-waste refillery in the Dayton area and was featured at our on-campus farmers markets this fall!)
    • Package Free Shop, https://packagefreeshop.com/ (an online shop with everything from household items to toiletries to gifts. They make it a mission to make everything zero waste!)
    • Lots of thrift stores around Dayton, such as Goodwills and Valley Thrift
  • Get creative with wrapping. There are many unique ways to wrap gifts beyond using rolls of wrapping paper. Although, if you do, buy regular or glossy paper so that you can recycle it. Foil, metallic, or laminated wrapping paper cannot be recycled.  Here are some alternative wrapping ideas: Use newspaper, decorate reusable shopping bags or paper shopping bags, reuse old wrapping paper, fabric, jars and tins, boxes, baskets, or just tie a ribbon around it!

Although many sustainable products look more expensive on the outside, they often will save money in ways you may not expect. For instance, they will typically last longer and you will not have to replace them. Beyond that, it is important to recognize we have a responsibility to shift our lifestyles. What is even better than buying sustainable products is buying less. Reduce and reuse are the more inexpensive pieces of the reduce, reuse, recycle framework. But we too often focus on recycling. This requires we buy something and then put it in the recycling (that may not even be able to be recycled). Reducing your consumption and reusing something you already have costs no money. The Catholic faith instills in us to only take what we need, then make sure everyone else also has what they need. We can work to become more aware of the pull of the culture of consumerism and then recognize that buying things will never fill us up as much as creating relationships with others and doing more of what makes us feel alive will. 

 

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