Switch to solar energy. Refuse products packaged with excessive plastic packaging. Buy from companies that produce ethically and sustainably.

As consumers we’re constantly told to vote with our wallets to stir our planet from the brink of collapse toward a more sustainable future.

There’s no denying that how and what we buy can have a big impact. And we’re starting to see some changes in the marketplace. Big brands such as Adidas have introduced product lines made from ocean plastics. Fast food chains are offering meat-free burger alternatives on their menus (even though clumsily).

What’s more, there are the countless small business owners and regenerative farmers who are doing things differently. They are working hard to provide consumers with sustainable alternatives to the standard wares on supermarket shelves and retail racks.

And in principal, I agree that we should make purchases that are aligned with our values. But I also believe that the concept of voting with our wallets has some big limitations. We can’t rely on market mechanisms alone to fix the climate crisis.

Unintended consequences complicate our choices

There’s an episode in the Netflix series The Good Place – a wacky comedy about the afterlife – which illustrates the unintended consequences of our daily choices.

In this scene, demon turned human friend Michael explains to the judge why it has become impossible for humans to make it into the Good Place (the secular version of heaven).

The example he chooses is the seemingly simple act of buying a tomato from a supermarket. With one purchase, the buyer unwittingly supports toxic pesticides, the exploitation of human labour and global warming.

While many people are aware of the implications their purchasing decisions are having on the planet, there are many more who – for many reasons – don’t know the impact their daily choices are having on the environment.

In our globalised and increasingly urbanised world, we have moved further and further away from how anything in our households is produced. Supply chains are complex and opaque. This means that it takes a lot of time and effort to make environmentally sound purchasing decisions.

And to avoid unintended consequences.

Decision-making fatigue

Let’s assume for a moment that the majority of people on the planet are fully aware of the impact their buying decisions are having. They also intend to adjust their behaviour to reduce their negative impact.

But then they get to the supermarket after a long day at work and managing the kids’ school drop-off and pick-up. And suddenly, making better choices seems a whole lot harder.

Decision-making fatigue is a term social psychologist use to describe the state of being too low on mental energy to make good choices. There’s plenty of evidence that our decision-making abilities and willpower deteriorate over the course of the day.

To effectively vote with your wallet though, the current retail system means that you must traipse to three to four different stores just to do your weekly grocery shop. Plus, if you are first starting out, you will spend a lot of time reading the fine print on packaging.

So, while shopping sustainably is possible, the effort it currently requires doesn’t incentivise mainstream adoption.

To vote with our wallets, we need money

While the gap between the cost of organic versus non-organic is closing, research has shown that organic produce in Australia can be up to 34% more expensive than conventional produce.

So, even if people are aware of the impact of their choices and have the willpower to act on it, it might not be financially feasible for them to do so. The voting with our wallet mantra only works if wealth is evenly distributed. Not that we were on track to achieve this, but with so many people out of work because of COVID-19, this is looking increasingly utopian.

And that’s not even considering issues with access and affordability to quality food in our regional and remote communities.

What’s the solution?

If you can, you should buy products and produce that are aligned with your ethics. In the long-term it will force businesses to adopt better practices that are in line with consumer demand.

But we will also need regulation that enforces more transparency and clarity on how goods are produced and distributed.  

On the commercial side of things, the return of the co-op or online marketplaces could help driving change. Especially when it comes to resolving some of the access and marketing issues smaller business and producers face.

What is certain is that if we rely on market mechanisms alone, it’s unlikely that we’re going to achieve a real shift toward a more sustainable future.

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Hero image by Simon Rae on Unsplash.

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