CAN YOUR CONSUMPTION REALLY HELP THE WORLD?

First of all, let’s forget about ‘saving’ the world. It doesn’t need saving – it’s too complex and fascinating as it is. Still, many of us don’t want to turn a blind eye on some obvious issues resulting from consumerism (read: Consumed by consumerism) – environmental destruction, poverty and inequality. Out of the many who are concerned, very few will fundamentally alter their lifestyles, give away their wealth, and become full-time campaigners for the causes they care about. Others are attracted to the option of ethical consumption – voting with your money for the brands and products that reduce the harm to our planet. Yet criticism for this option is mounting, too. We are told that it’s just a show, or that it only prolongs the suffering of oppressed people, or that it takes a different, but still a significant toll on the environment.

Many have shared this talk by the well-known Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek when he was still popular.

He claims, along with many other critics, that ethical consumption rests on delusional hopes to help others without changing anything about our lifestyles. As the Christmas season spreads the generous mood, many people would like to make a difference by consuming ethically. But if that option falls, does it mean we should give up on taking tiny steps for good causes?

Fortunately, there are ways in which small steps can make a change – sometimes even bigger than the whole ecosystem of advocacy can achieve.

Care about Discrimination? Sublet Your Spare Room

Ask anyone who has an Arab name or a minority accent about their experience in renting apartments in Europe, and you’ll be saddened for the whole day. Seemingly friendly landlords hanging up, ignoring messages or even plainly stating that they do not rent to certain nationalities – all of it is commonplace. As a result, refugees and people with minority background overpay for their accommodation, spend more time searching for it, or live in crammed apartments. For newcomers in the country, it leaves a bad impression of its people.

If you live in a flatshare or have a spare room to let, offer it to people who face discrimination on the open market. There’s no need to donate anything or be charitable – just treat them fairly. Approach a local NGO to recommend people to you. If you had good experience with them, offer your recommendation to future landlords and accompany them to flat viewings. If you did not, treat them based on individual merit.

Discrimination on the market is often a trust issue, with landlords striving to reduce risks. Having a positive reference can improve people’s chances and break the cycle of distrust. More money to spend and trusting relationships with locals means better integration. In Germany, the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers in 2015 inspired a wave of initiatives to share homes with people in need. Along the way, hosts could practice languages, learn about new cultures, and get that cosy feeling of making a real impact.

Care about Poverty? Hire People

I get the appeal of ‘do it yourself,’ especially if it’s an alternative to shipping mostly useless, low-cost items from overseas (and while we’re at it, consider these non-material gift ideas for Christmas). Nonetheless, if we adopt a non-consumerist approach and stop using mending, grooming or catering services, less or differently educated people will lose jobs. To give people in need some extra income, think what you could commission them to do. Did your body shape change and you have a dress that needs fitting? Do you need someone to lay tiles for you? Why not give a chance to a person looking to break the cycle of poverty? If you enjoyed their service, refer them to others.

Many people who find themselves in a difficult situation consider it humiliating to accept charity. Being hired would help restore their pride and confidence. Approach a local community or organisation to refer you to a person who would benefit from extra income and inquire about their skills.

People in a difficult situation often have various skills and hidden talents

The same goes for poor countries. Did you remember to tag a cafe you liked when posting travel photos? Do you have a friend whose company could use the services of a local web designer you met in Cambodia? Make connections, facilitate work opportunities, and acknowledge people’s skills and talents.

Care about the Environment? Rethink Travelling

The number of people on the move is unprecedented. Low-cost flights make it tempting to spontaneously spend a weekend in a distant city. Fuel, plastic waste and unused food on the plane will all end up in our oceans and air. Business travel generates tons of waste from flights, hotels, meals and conference materials. Could all of this be streamlined?

This is not to suggest that we should give up travelling. But let’s try to weight the environmental impact of our travel against the pleasure or utility derived from it. A weekend getaway means a lot of flying with very little time to spend on location. A one-day business trip means many pollutants per contact hour with business partners. A better idea is to cluster multiple visits and take our time in another country. I once asked my former employer to allow me to stay in Brussels between two business trips two weeks apart. Not only it saved two flights – it also allowed me to work more flexibly and make time to visit two new cities by train, without the need to fly there.

When it comes to the environment, our actions will always be merely a drop in the sea. What we can do is to prompt a new trend, to make it ‘cool’ to travel differently. The same way responsible fashion is now becoming a trend, and businesses are starting to take action.

I guess the bottom line is that it might be delusional to expect to help anyone with our individual consumption. Change, however tiny, starts when we connect with others along the way – increasing trust, fostering dignity, and connecting with places.

Do you have anything to add? Let us know in the comments section below!