What is consumer privilege?
It’s the freedom to choose what you buy. The inequality of consumer privilege in our culture is yet another aspect of systemic social injustice, yet it generally goes unrecognized. In fact, the subject is most often avoided, because connecting the dots that lead to this reality reveal some staggering and difficult truths regarding our own consumer habits. But isn’t that what dismantling a broken system is all about? We hear it often, the concern that the sustainability movement is the terrain of the privileged. The thinking is that poor and minority populations can’t be expected to bear the added expense or burden of pushing back against established systems that are degrading to human rights, human health and our environment. The refrain is that so many are just “trying to get by,” so thinking or choosing in terms of sustainability is not an option for those in impoverished and underserved communities.
Let’s take a closer look at that.
It’s unfortunately true that fresh, unprocessed and nutrient dense food is so often unavailable in impoverished urban and rural settings. About 23.5 million people live in food deserts. Nearly half of them are also low-income. Approximately 2.3 million people (2.2% of all US households) live in poor, rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket. And it’s a well established fact that poverty and poor health are inextricably linked. It’s also true that the low cost clothing, shoes, and household supplies, the things that are accessible to lower income populations, are the very products in our economy that represent modern day enslavement, environmental devastation and yes, even personal health problems. Mass production of cheap, ill-sourced and irresponsibly produced goods fuels mass consumption, which, rather than satisfying daily needs, results in the continued degradation of health and quality of life for us as individuals as well as for the planet. In arguing that impoverished populations can only afford the cheap, mass produced essentials of daily living–and not doing anything to change it– aren’t we consenting to the harmful practices inherent in these systems? In assuming that the alternatives are too costly for some and therefore shouldn’t be supported, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or level of consumer privilege, aren’t we complicit in perpetuating a system that is fueled by injustice? If we dismiss the health and human rights issues with nutrient deficient, processed foods and cheap, mass-produced clothing and goods because it’s all that some people can afford, then are we sanctioning this situation as “good enough” for those that can’t do better?
If justice and equality are truly what we’re seeking, it follows that we must examine what we’re supporting in our individual consumer behaviors.
For example, take a look at any item of clothing you are wearing right now, a shirt, for instance. Do you know where you got it, and do you know where it came from before that? Do you know what it is made of, where those materials came from, and what inputs were used in the manufacturing process? There will be some exceptions here, but there is a strong likelihood that what you are now wearing was made by someone working in unsafe conditions in an underdeveloped country, and being paid enslaved wages. There is also a strong possibility that it contains toxic chemicals or dyes that are harmful to the planet and your personal health. To be fair, when buying new clothes the alternatives are few and far between, and the consumer that is informed enough to seek out only responsibly sourced and manufactured clothing is going to pay a good bit more for these items. But the truth is this–that fast fashion, human oppression and environmental devastation are inextricably linked, and with every purchase you make that supports it, you are literally wearing social injustice on your sleeve.
It is up to you, on a very personal level, to examine these issues and decide to what degree you can use your own consumer privilege to help dismantle these systems. What we tend to forget is that the consumer holds the ultimate power in our economy. What you decide to buy (or not buy) helps determine the next wave in the marketplace. Individually and collectively, we can change this– one step at a time, one purchase at a time. Yes, it takes effort–knowledge, awareness and education–and especially for those with the privilege and ability to do so, a willingness to look beyond the cheapest price of an item. Consumer privilege is a powerful tool for change, but only if those who have it, choose to use it. The accessibility of nutritious food, affordable, health- supporting clothing and products of daily living should be the right of every human being on the planet, regardless of race, nationality, gender, gender orientation or any of the divisive, anti- human rights labels of today.
Ask yourself what you really want to see in the world, understand that your purchases can help create or destroy that, and make your consumer decisions from there.
So where can any one of us begin in taking action against this deeply entrenched problem of consumer inequality in our economy? Making changes in our individual buying habits is a powerful act against racial injustice in our society. Here are 3 steps to help you get started.
Become informed about the inhumane practices and the environmental degradation inherent in the clothing industry.
The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, Elizabeth Cline
Textiles 101 Blog – a Lady Farmer primer on the good and bad in fiber content
The Quick & Dirty about Cotton
Become informed about the health and environment hazards of the industrial food industry and the reality of food deserts in underserved communities.
Unbroken Ground Mini Documentary, Patagonia
TED Talk, A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA, Ron Finley
How Black Americans Were Robbed of their Land, The Atlantic
The Unhealthy Truth, Robyn O’Brien
Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet–One Bite at a Time, Mark Hyman
Follow news coverage by Civil Eats on food policy, farming, health & the environment.
Seek out alternatives to these systems of inequality, and commit to changes in your own consumer choices, however small, to support a more just and sustainable economy.
Your dollar counts. Consider the purchases you make, and purchase from producers that emphasize sustainable, regenerative practices in all spaces – from food to clothing to skincare to household goods.
Educate others. Share educational resources, and leave books in a Little Free Library when you’re done reading them.
Shop second hand or host a clothing swap
Apply your clothing budget to fewer, more sustainable purchases made with natural (and sustainably or organically-grown) fibers.
Donate unused clothing to local charities that will redistribute them to those who need it, or use the profits in reselling to support your local community.
Avoid big box stores! Support local farms directly, by purchasing at a farmer’s market or through a CSA. Purchase items not available locally through a buying club (see Farm Match or 1000ecofarms) or co-op (Co-op Directory).
Support farms, co-ops and collectives in your area that help underserved communities with your purchases, donations, or time! Here is a list of some incredible national and regional groups, too.
Grow your own food – and share it! If you have the space and ability, consider growing your own food and gifting excess to your community.