Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Do Our Decisions as Individual Consumers Truly Matter?

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Do Our Decisions as Individual Consumers Truly Matter?

As part of a growing number of Australians who decide to leave meat off the menu[1], I find that I’m often questioning myself. Is it really worth it? Do my choices as a consumer really have an impact?

The nihilists certainly have a compelling argument. Making consumption decisions with the environment in mind seems futile when one study has shown that just 100 firms produce more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions[2]. So how much agency do we truly have? As usual, it depends on how you look at it.

My right-leaning friends would argue that our consumer decisions simply don’t have a large enough impact to justify conscious consumerism, and this argument certainly remains common in public discourse. But if our individual choices don’t have an impact, why worry about problems like buying shares in a company that uses child labour? For many of us (most of us I hope), there is still the moral question of supporting something we believe to be damaging and wrong, even if not supporting that action is not going to stop it happening.

But what impact do our decisions actually have? The evidence can be a bit mixed.  On the one hand, a 2011 study by Maria Csutora with over 1000 respondents “found no statistically significant difference between the carbon footprints of environmentally aware consumers and … consumers [who aren’t environmentally aware]”[3]. CHOICE also corroborated this finding[4].  But the capacity for impact is clear: going vegetarian almost halves your carbon footprint according to a recent UK study[5].

Obviously, we can have an impact through our consumption decisions. So, if our consumption decisions can have an impact, why haven’t we seen one?

Many would argue it is because humans are inherently self-centred when it comes to their spending habits. Maybe being environmentally aware doesn’t translate to environmentally aware actions because people lack the conviction to change their consumption decisions. And some would argue that it’s just “this generation of young people”. I can just see my Nan sitting in her armchair saying, “Thomas, you know, it’s just that kids these days are lazy. When I was your age, no one was sitting around on these PlayStations or whatever you call them. We worked hard, and we weren’t so entitled.” At this point I can almost smell the irony in the air as she watches her 4th straight hour of morning news.

But morning news aside, my Nan is kind of right. Maybe not with the generational bias, but with the general notion that we are motivated by self-interest first and foremost. Although there has been an increase in those participating in “boycotts … contacting the media and various forms of protest”[6], it is evident that there is still a major disconnect between people’s environmental awareness and their corresponding actions. In other words, some people are walking the walk, but most aren’t[4]. Combined with increasing political apathy, as well as decreasing participation in ‘formal’ politics[7], we find ourselves on the edge of a slippery slope. However, this is not an unavoidable trajectory.

While our consumption decisions as a collective might not seem to be having an impact right now, they can and should. We should put our money where our mouths are. We should walk the walk.


[1] http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/vegetarianisms-slow-but-steady-rise-in-australia-201608151105

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

[3] Csutora, M 2012, ‘One more awareness gap? The behaviour–impact gap problem’, Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 145-163.

[4] https://www.choice.com.au/home-and-living/household/everyday-items/articles/do-consumers-care-about-ethical-products

[5] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-014-1169-1

[6] Young, S 2011, ‘The political news audience’, in How Australia Decides: Election Reporting and the Media, Cambridge University Press, pp. 23–41.

[7] http://www.civiced.org/research/pdfs/AthertonArticle-InPatrickBook.pdf#page=17