Conscious Consumption in Everyday Life

As I pointed out last week, the consumer culture is structured to propel us to buy, buy, and buy even more, without thinking. From the consumer side of the equation, it’s so easy to react mindlessly to the demands of the culture and then find ourselves dealing with the consequences of excess.

Why does overconsumption matter? Because there’s too much collateral damage when purchase decisions are dictated by businesses that have a vested interest in getting us to buy more than we ever thought we needed.

Collateral damage from the profit-at-all-cost paradigm

  • Over-indebtedness, which leaves us with no capacity to cope with emergencies such as interest rate increases and job losses. In March 2017, Statistics Canada reported that the country’s average household debt-to-income ratio hit a record high of 167%. This means that Canadians owed $1.67 for each $1 they generated in disposable income, In everyday terms, this suggests that many Canadians are living beyond their means or, at best, are just making ends meet.
  • Environmental impacts, in more ways than most of us can imagine. Air pollution, climate change, and overpopulation are familiar issues, but a list of 25 on Conserve Energy Future reminds us about others such as light and noise pollution, urban sprawl, and medical waste.
  • Chronic health issuescaused by stress on many levels. Overconsumption leads to the emotional stress of over-indebtedness, the physical stress of eating food contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals, and the mental stress of trying to sort through overwhelming amounts of information in an attempt to figure out what to do to remain financially and physically healthy.

What can we do?

We can start by taking responsibility for our part in this dysfunctional system. As long as we continue purchasing what corporations sell, we are reinforcing their bad behaviour and they will continue doing what they’re doing.

We get the products we deserve.

The antidote is found in making mindful decisions. Conscious spending is based on a clear intention to meet our needs without causing harm to others and the planet. It challenges us to think about what we value. And as we do that, we expand our view of what’s important and are no longer interested in supporting corporations that focus on profit at all cost.

Food is a good place to start practising conscious choice.

These days few of us grow our own food, so food production and retailing have become big business. Even organic products sold in a supermarket are grown on huge farms in order to provide the quantities required. Mass production and distribution enable supermarkets to provide us with relatively inexpensive food.

Supermarket bargains

Cheap food is a good thing, isn’t it?

Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on why the food is cheap.

Much that passes as food is cheap because it isn’t really food. Powdered juice imitations, jelly dessert powders, and margarine come to mind. They are manufactured to imitate real food, using chemicals and cheap ingredients to keep cost down and profit up. These artificial substitutes don’t provide the nutrition we’d get from the real food they are imitating.

Worse yet, these pretend-foods overload our bodies with chemicals that contribute to numerous health issues including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And in case low price isn’t enough to entice us to keep buying, many of these products are made deliberately addictive as Michael Moss reports in his New York Times bestseller Sugar, Salt, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

 

However, supermarkets also carry real food, and sometimes it’s cheaper than you would expect. Usually that’s because large and powerful corporations have squeezed producers to sell their goods at very low prices. This means that farmers and farm workers often make less than a living wage. Coffee is a good example of a product where there is intense market price competition and the workers bear the brunt of this.

The exception is companies dealing in fairly traded products. They pay workers a living wage and make other contributions to the communities in which the products are grown and harvested. Often these products are organically produced to protect workers from toxic chemicals. For all of these reasons, the price will be higher. But many people consciously choose to buy fair trade products because of the good they do.

 Fair Trade Coffee

So, there’s plenty to think about and it might seem like a lot of work to be a conscious consumer. The trick is to simplify. And one way to do that it to establish some personal policies about food.

Uncomplicated eating

One of my favourite books about food choices is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. A small book with a commonsense perspective, it’s the best way I know to achieve uncomplicated eating. Although the title refers to rules, he points out that they are more like personal policies that guide our choices.

Michael Pollan's What to Eat?

Having a personal policy such as #39, Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk, means you won’t waste time reading ingredient labels and making decisions while standing in the cereal aisle. You’ll quickly narrow down the pool of items to choose from.

I highly recommend Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Each of the sixty-four “rules” is followed by a one-page explanation that is a refreshing combination of information and common sense. Here are some of my favourites.  Adopt the ones that stick and work best for you.

  • Eat food.
  • It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
  • Eat only food that will eventually rot.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
  • Avoid food products with the word “lite” or the terms “low-fat” or “no-fat” in their names.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
  • Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.
  • Consult your gut.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Cook.

When your decisions and actions are based on conscious choice, you’re doing your part to reduce the damage caused by mindlessness. And when you adopt personal policies that align with what you think is important, you streamline your food decisions in a meaningful way. Conscious choices are not always easy or popular, but they are ultimately the most satisfying.

Reference chapter: “Spending Consciously” from Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.

Be curious. Ask questions.

Curiosity is the antidote to being stuck in that awful place when you know what to do and can’t make it happen. You are stuck, and might be inclined to beat yourself up about that. Instead, get curious about what is going on that’s keeping you stuck.

It might be that you’re not hurting enough yet to want to make the effort to get unstuck. You might be afraid of losing something when making lasting changes. There are a lot of gains we get from doing things as we’ve always done them, or doing what we know we shouldn’t be doing. Or you might feel you “should” do something, but part of you is resisting.

Whatever the case, this is an invitation to find out what’s really underlying your resistance to making a change. Being more self-aware and understanding ourselves is our superpower…when we use it.

Get curious on your own behalf.

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What if…memories are passed through DNA?

Apparently it is true. Your genes could have been altered even before your mother was born.

In December of 2013, there was a flurry of media activity reporting on a study published in Nature Neuroscience. Richard Gray, Science Correspondent for The Telegraph, describes the essence of the study:

Researchers at the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, found that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences–in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom–to subsequent generations. The results may help to explain why people suffer from seemingly irrational phobias–it may be based on the inherited experiences of their ancestors.

Disrupting Old Patterns

A sidewalk disrupted

Being a person with eclectic interests and viewpoints, it’s always been challenging for me to decide what my focus is. What am I really about? What is my work?

It came to me recently that my work has always been about disrupting old patterns. Patterns of eating, patterns of belief, patterns of activity, patterns of thinking.

So I guess I now have an answer when people ask me the inevitable question, “What do you do?”

I’m a pattern disruptor. In that vein, here are a couple of disruptive videos… Continue reading

What we say matters.

There is energy and power in our words. People around us tune in.

Anyone who was paying attention in language class learned that words have two kinds of meaning. The obvious one is “denotation” which is the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests. Those  ideas or feelings are the “connotation,” the subtle meaning of the word—the overtone, undertone, implication, nuance or suggestion invoked by the word.

Consider a couple health-related examples that illustrate these subtle differences. Continue reading

Security or Expansion?

Humans are wired to seek security.  It’s how we survived, individually and as a species. It’s in our genes.

Seeking security leads us to entrench in the familiar, which includes the way we do things and how we think. We become “set in our ways.” We forget how to venture out and explore. We develop a fixed mindset.

That’s the contracted state I found myself in a couple years ago. I had the security of familiarity. But I wasn’t very happy. Truly, I was bored with myself. Continue reading

A year has passed!

I started posting weekly blogs on my birthday a year ago. Since I’m the leading edge of the Baby Boom, and am now a year older, aging seemed a good topic for today.

But first, a video of my absolute-favourite song about getting old. When I first heard it, I couldn’t imagine being 64. When I got there, I made sure to listen to this song on my birthday. Today, I’m happy to share it with you. And if you want the lyrics to belt it out with them… Continue reading

Build a new model for achieving health? There is hope.

Just who is fixing the healthcare system? That’s the question I asked at the end of last week’s blog when I discussed having empathy for our doctors, who must work in a broken system.

So, who is trying to make it better? Apparently not our governments who, despite sometimes-good intentions, become bogged down in bureaucracy. And not conventional medical channels, through which it takes 17 years for new information to make it into clinical practice.

Patients?

In a limited way, we can contribute to making things better by keeping ourselves as healthy as possible so as not to over-use the system. We don’t have to ask permission or medical sanction to eat fresh food, plant a garden, think differently about our stress, take probiotics, get a pet, meet new people, move our bodies, improve the quality of our sleep, and be of service to others.

Doctors?

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Have empathy for your doctor.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of active engagement in our health-related decisions. To do this effectively, it helps to know several things about the healthcare system. This understanding will relieve your frustration with the way things are, and it may also make you more empathetic toward the doctor who doesn’t listen when you try to participate.

1. The healthcare system is a product of the consumer culture, and is designed around money.

Doctors are paid for a very short appointment time with each patient, usually about 10 minutes. That means appointments are booked close together and the doctor is invariably running late by the time the first patient leaves.

From the patient point of view, this means a long wait after arriving at your scheduled time. It also means your doctor may seem rushed, harried, and unwilling to listen to your explanation of what’s going on with your health. And, if you have the impression that doctors only want to hear about one issue at the appointment, that’s true. Ten minutes doesn’t allow enough time to sort out even one problem, never mind a complex health issue.

Sanity strategies…

  • Take a book, listen to your iPod, or decide to enjoy leafing through magazines you don’t normally read.
  • Meditate. Put on your sunglasses and no one will be the wiser. You’ll be refreshed instead of frazzled by the wait.
  • Book your appointment far enough in advance so that you can get the first slot in the morning or after lunch.
  • Don’t plan your next activity for the day based on the time you would be free if you got in to see the doctor as scheduled. You know it isn’t going to happen, so be realistic and save yourself the stress.

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Only time will tell the whole story.

I welcome reader comments on my blog. They get me thinking. Here’s one, in response to my post, written after I tripped and gave myself a black eye.

Great blog today. I love how an unfortunate event becomes blog fodder. 😊

It made me aware that I hadn’t actually thought of my black eye as unfortunate. And with that awareness, I remembered the story that first shifted my thinking about good and bad fortune.

Here’s a charming version, narrated by philosopher, writer, and speaker, Alan Watts. Born in England, he moved to the US in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Watts, who died in 1973, is best known as an early interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

So what can we make of this ancient teaching?

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