Shoppers should get the green light for conscientious consumption
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Shoppers should get the green light for conscientious consumption

As we become more aware of our throwaway culture and take steps to curb our consumption, so services are springing up to serve this conscious consumerism.

Rent, don’t buy is the message and this year that even extends to Christmas. Consumers can rent their own real tree to have it returned and replanted, letting it grow and be reused again next year. With over seven million trees entering landfill in the UK each year after Christmas, this is undoubtedly an amazing idea. But I am still slightly sceptical, given that my real tree is 90% twig by the third Sunday in Advent. Others seem to be more careful tree-borrowers: one of the three UK farms supplying rented trees in the UK says that about 2% don’t make it – which is both encouragingly low and also much better than the 100% of cut trees that are thrown out each year.

Then there’s fashion. Dress agencies have been around forever, allowing fashionistas to rent a tux or sequinned frock for a special occasion. Today, however, there are services where you can rent everyday clothing from mid-price to designer, from fellow owners, so you can get the same fresh wardrobe fix without having to resort to fast fashion. A recent survey from Oxfam found that two tonnes of new clothes are bought every minute in the UK, equivalent to driving 162,000 miles in a fossil fuel-powered car.

But even the sharing economy has its issues. What of the energy required to water and nurture the reusable trees; to store, package and transport them safely? Rented fashion needs to be washed after every wear, adding microplastics to the ocean. Alternatively, they are often dry cleaned using toxic chemicals. An owner might choose instead to air their clothes, leaving them fresh enough for a second or even third wear before washing.

Doing the mental gymnastics needed to work out which purchase is the most sustainable hurts my head. Of course, the best alternative is not to consume at all, as per the mitigation hierarchy. In this instance, reduce should certainly come well before reuse or recycle. But, while concerted campaigns are having an impact (such as Oxfam’s Second Hand September) and making a dent in our rabid over-buying habits, I can’t see shopping stopping any time soon.

Tools are emerging to help the conscious consumer, such as apps that calculate the carbon neutrality of your food and clothing purchases or help you shop more wisely. Happy Cow helps shoppers locate vegan or vegetarian options, for example. Alternatively, your bank could help you put a stop to both your over-spending and over-consuming. Doconomy’s black credit card has a built-in limit – a CO2 limit – that stops you shopping once you have reached your carbon quota that month. 

But we need something that clears the mind fog further. Something that everyone immediately grasps.

Consuming well is a growing concern for shoppers and increasingly a point of differentiation for brands. We’ve had the traffic light system on food packaging for years now to promote better overall nutrition, perhaps it’s time we went red and amber, not just green, for the environment too?

Why? Because traffic lights are a symbol that everyone understands. Sam Hua, founding partner, Shanghai H&H Marketing Consulting Co. calls them a ‘super sign’ – an iconic visual understood by people the world over. “Traffic signs […] are the most powerful signs in existence, because everybody in the world knows them and obeys them,” Hua told me when I spoke to him last month for January’s edition of Catalyst magazine. Imagine the marketing power for companies that command an environmental green light. A sign of what’s to come?

To hear more on the impact of fast fashion and sartorial sustainability, listen to episode three of the CIM Marketing Podcast: Fashion, the fast and the furious.

Morag’s exclusive article on super signs is out in the next issue of Catalyst, out January.


Morag Cuddeford-Jones Editor Catalyst
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