When we think of young people and their habits of consumption, it’s often in a negative light. Alcohol, cannabis or other drugs spring to mind, as well as consumer goods. There’s a preconceived idea that young people are all careless, immature and addicted to fashion and new technologies such as cellphones, iPods, video games, and that they’re in constant competition with their peers where brand awareness is concerned. I find these ideas reductive and out of touch with young people’s actual consumption habits, so often misrepresented in the media.
Of course, one shouldn’t ignore reality, and I’m sure many young people must recognize themselves in the portrait above! However, I think it’s important to emphasize the positive aspects of youthful consumers, namely a sense of responsibility. By this I mean buying products based on ethical values, for example what is sustainable, good for the environment and respects human rights or animal welfare. The products we regard as “responsible” are certified organic or fair-trade, or are biodegradable, and the fact that sales of these have skyrocketed proves that consumers of all ages are aware of what’s at stake when they exercise consumer power.
Why should we make responsible decisions when buying? Is it irresponsible not to tally up the moral aspects of every purchase? It seems that consuming responsibly doesn’t mean always feeling responsible. Thus the 30 or so young people I met, aged between 18 and 30, spoke at length of their desire to consume differently, stemming from a sense of responsibility towards others, the planet and future generations. However, they aren’t fanatical or extreme; they just want to strike a balance between their values and convictions ¯ not to speak of tight budgets ¯ so that they can enjoy their purchases. They find fair-trade chocolate and coffee taste better when their consciences are at peace.
These people didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to become vegetarian, boycott companies or use recyclable bags. They’re ordinary people whom school, friends, the media, travel or international cooperation have educated about the effects of their actions. They have started thinking seriously and critically. “The worse thing is not knowing the consequences. Once you know, you can take action. You do things little by little, on your own scale,” one person told me. Many of those I spoke to echoed the idea of “doing my bit” for the planet, and buying organic, fair-trade products was affordable and easy. Most of them approved of buying used clothes, taking public transport, buying food from local producers and many other responsible actions. Of course, consuming responsibly also means not consuming at all! Once you begin questioning your motives for buying something – it was fashionable, everyone else had one, etc. —you realize often you simply didn’t need it. That’s why many of the people I met found that actually reducing the amount they bought was a responsible thing to do, although in our society, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. We’re all pulled in two directions: ads pushing an ever-expanding variety of products and brands, and calls for more reasonable consumer habits. Luckily for us and the generations to come, some people tread a middle path, buying products that are ecologically friendly and were not made in sweat shops.