Both in our world and at our university, we have been thrown a lot of political and social challenges in the last eight months. As a result, many of us leave this school year with a unique sense of political angst. We’ve had to question and criticize our communities, mobilize opinions and ask important questions with no easy answers. Despite all this, there are still arguments left unresolved and problems that refuse to budge. In the wake of such political frustration, many of us have turned to conscious consumerism to live out our ideals. The question becomes, is being mindful enough?
Working for change in our systems of production requires time and energy, and thus political and social movements are often viewed as long, drawn-out battles. We crave change, but want quick solutions. Consumption is often the perfect compromise, because we have been taught to see our financial choices as having instant political value. Vegetarians are one of the most visible examples — many vigilantly avoid meat as a statement against animal rights abuses and ecological destruction. While vegetarianism has important social and ecological impacts, the ethics behind it quickly unravel when one refuses to eat meat that would then go uneaten in order to hold their moral stance. Conscious consumerism loses value when it evolves from a political statement to an identity. Brands marketed as “eco-friendly” lead consumers to identify with the products they buy, and create moral borders between themselves and people who don’t buy “green.”
Capitalism’s ideology of consumption leads us to believe that the types of things we buy have big stakes in who we are. Therefore, we invest our time and money finding products that we feel represent us and convey this representation to society. But the power of investment is largely an illusion. While vegetarianism is undoubtedly environmentally friendly, it doesn’t necessarily weaken commercial farming or go against immoral markets. It is important to recognize that buying and consuming “green” products doesn’t necessarily subvert the malpractices we wish to defeat.
This is not to say that vegetarianism or conscious consumerism in general is not a useful practice. Mindfulness, if nothing else, is valuable because it challenges us to think and act differently. There is no test of strength quite like being vegetarian at a barbecue — experiences such as these can show us how strong we are in the face of temptation and remind us how important discomfort can be. Living in accordance with our values is thought-provoking and satisfying, but we should ask for more of ourselves. To enact effective change, it isn’t enough to abstain from problematic power structures. This requires moving against them.