There’s a scene in Mad Men in which Don Draper, his wife, and kids are having a picnic and soaking in a gorgeous sunny day. It’s a picturesque view of the vintage American family. As they ready to leave, Don throws his empty beer can into the field. His wife, Betty, follows suit shaking out the trash-covered blanket before they drive away. End scene.
Were this a 2019 portrait of family perfection, the Drapers would’ve collected what little trash they did generate — a wrapper or two and the beer can— and found a proper receptacle to dispose of it. But their actions in the show are a subtle nod to the way things were just 50 years ago when an ‘ecological footprint’ was a nonsense phrase.
Here’s a post that continues to age well: “Conscious Consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world.” Now that is a headline. The author notes that small acts of consumer behavior – recycling, eating locally, and purchasing sustainably made products – aren’t changing the world as quickly as we want them to or, frankly, need them to.
She doesn’t advocate giving up on those actions but argues the better way to spend that time and energy is to lobby government agencies or donate to organizations and politicians fighting for these causes. She’s right. Those actions have no substitute.
Earth Day’s pioneer, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, inspired by anti-Vietnam War movements, envisioned a large grassroots demonstration raising awareness and starting a conversation about protecting the planet. That vision became real and the conversation has only grown louder.
Today, 49 years after its debut, participation in Earth Day activity reaches over 1 billion people from 192 countries. Earth Day is a success story in the efficacy of public action.
And that action has reached the private sector, too. A 2012 report from TIME found in the early 2000’s:
“only about a dozen Fortune 500 companies issued a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability report. Now the majority does. More than 8,000 businesses around the world have signed the UN Global Compact pledging to show good global citizenship in the areas of human rights, labor standards, and environmental protection. The next generation of business leaders is even more likely to prioritize CSR.”
Public pressure to defend that next generation is one of the primary drivers of corporate action, taxes on bags at the grocery store, and a ban on plastic straws. And it’s the primary reason why conscious consumerism is vital.
If the next generation is taught that purchasing and supporting sustainably made products matters matter, we can expect their actions as citizens, consumers, and eventually business leaders to reflect that. Think of the massive change we can initiate.
There is no one silver bullet to creating the change we want in the world. There are countless. It will take time to see progress. It requires hard work and patience. When using your dollar to minimize your own ecological footprint, it can appear as if the needle of progress is immobile.
The truth is, we may never see the benefits of the conscious consumerism we practice today. But our kids will.
So get involved and advocate for the causes you believe in. Take pride in the fact we no longer live in a world where we are throwing trash to the wind, shedding ourselves of responsibility. Hold the powerful and yourself accountable.
Building up your local ecology is a great way to get started.
We can help with some basics, too. Get a reusable straw and a few reusable plastic baggies. Do away with paper towels. Eliminate laundry detergent. Keep produce fresh, compost, and bring your own grocery bags. These steps are increasingly becoming habit and that’s a good thing. Banding together to improve the way we live on a daily basis is a powerful silver bullet in the chamber.
If those products succeed, those Makers succeed. When those Makers succeed, a strong consortium of growing small businesses in the private sector will turn to public advocacy and action to fight for the very cause they built their business on. Our voices will join theirs. They have to. Making conscious purchases and decisions, tackling the challenges of sustainability, that’s not the world’s problem, it’s ours.