I keep having days where I’m in a great mood, the weather is beautiful, and everything is just fine… then I get on social media and one of those photos pops up of an entire beach covered in plastic bottles, plastic bags, and seagulls entangled in plastic soda rings. Those photos make me angry, and guilty, and so, so sad. 

I think this feeling is one shared by people around the world. It is definitely a feeling shared by many in the younger generations- myself included. That messy combination of anger and guilt is something a lot of young people deal with everyday. While we all play at least a small role in the system which buries beaches in plastic, individuals can’t be blamed for such global issues.

After all, these are the results of decades of bad planning, unchecked over-consumption, and unsustainable practices, most of which were set in motion before we were even born. 

Next-Gen Consumer Power

Last week I sat down with Lucia Gallardo (well, me in my house and she in hers) for an interview. She is one of Rainforest Partnership’s brilliant board members, and the founder and CEO of Emerge: a company that aims to solve social problems with the use of emerging technology like Blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

She’s a millennial like myself. We talked about the importance of involving “next-gens” (the millennials- early 1980’s to mid 1990’s, and generation z- mid 1990’s to early 2010’s) in conservation and social-action organizations. A large portion of that discussion ended up being about the fact that our generation is much more critical of traditional consumerism and unchecked capitalism than generations before us.

It’s not just that we’re better able to catch on to the greenwashing of products that tout “all-natural” or “plant-based” ingredients as code-words for things like palm-oil, one of the main drivers of deforestation in tropical rainforests. It’s not just the collective sense of suspicion towards fast-fashion brands or giant companies.

We’re moving beyond just a feeling of frustration, or resentment towards unethical, unsustainable practices. Younger generations are actually doing their research and using their dollars to act on what is right. 

Towards Valuing Intangibles

As a result of mounting consumer pressure from decades of destructive practices, many companies around the world have made great strides in reducing excessive waste and unsustainable practices. In fact, long-term investors are now considering climate-risk as one of the top issues they analyze when looking to invest. They are prioritizing companies that have smaller carbon footprints and less reliance on “stranded assets” (things like fossil fuels that, as a result of legislation, decreased demand, growing renewable energy markets, or a recognition of the reality of climate change, have become obsolete). This model is now used by many (but not all) of the largest investment firms all around the world. 

This mounting pressure is a result of increasing recognition of when businesses prioritize environmental, ethical, and social concerns over profit. 

And luckily, if businesses actually do sustainably source their products, they usually advertise that (as they should).  In fact, many companies also now integrate ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) factors into their business models. In the past, the vast majority of a company’s value used to be based on things; the value was tangible and could be easily measured. Since the 1970’s, however, companies in the S&P 500 index have changed their models to value intangible assets: things like brand strength, customer loyalty, and goodwill. In other words, it’s starting to become a long-term financial risk for companies to resist incorporating ESG factors into their business model. 

It’s about where to put your money and when to withhold it.

And the risk for companies resisting change is growing. People, especially next-gens, increasingly don’t want to spend money on something unless the brand can prove they are truly committed to ethical, sustainable production.

Fortunately, brands today are recognizing that there is no longer tolerance for wastefulness and greed. Many are using recycled materials, shorter supply chains, and better working conditions for their employees. They are starting to adopt the requirements for sustainability. And the better they become at this, the more transparent they’re able to be, and voila! Consumers will see that, and reward them with their dollars. This is how we create better, more sustainable societies: by settling for nothing less than transparent, equitable, sustainable practices. 

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with our work at Rainforest Partnership. Consumption is one of the biggest driving forces of deforestation, especially of products like beef, soy, and palm oil. And, as someone who works for Rainforest Partnership, I place a lot of value on transparency. The more transparent a company, or NGO, can be with its supporters, the better they’ll do in the long run. 

Knowledge is power

It’s not just investors and corporations that get to dictate how companies and brands operate; it’s every single one of us. Those beaches filled with plastic exist because people didn’t ask these questions before. People didn’t consider what would happen to the thousands of factories worth of plastic bottles, fast fashion pieces, etc., after being discarded as waste. But the decades of carelessness have caught up to us. We have no choice but to change how this system works. We’re telling brands what we want by spending our money consciously, and, just as importantly, not consuming, when possible. 

To summarize: you have a lot of power. But, that doesn’t mean you have to make the right choice, every time. Sustainable products are not always available, accessible, or affordable. Becoming a conscious-consumer means making mistakes, forgiving yourself, and making choices that work for you. Imperfection is welcome. Like I said, knowledge is power, and there are many ways you can make a difference. So, do what you can. Think before you spend, buy used when possible, recycle, hold producers accountable, know your power, and use it! 

(And stay tuned for my next installment of Conscious Consumerism!)

Ready to fight deforestation by holding industry accountable?