A Vote With Your Dollar: Can We Really Effect Change?


I Voted sticker on a finger
Photo: Parker Johnson

I committed my career to “sustainability” sometime back in 2006; fifteen years ago. Even though it was more than a decade ago, I remember it like it was yesterday because moments like these, you never forget. In fact, I call these flashpoint moments - the moment you make the decision to dedicate all your energy to a newfound passion for something bigger than you.


Sometimes it’s sparked by something you see (I had just watched An Inconvenient Truth), or something you hear, or more often, thanks to someone you meet. It’s that moment when you decide that all you’ll be doing from here on out is working to be a part of the solution, instead of the problem. And while that was the actual decision point, at that very moment, I honestly wasn’t sure where or how to get started. I knew, without a doubt, though, that “doing things better,” and doing business “more responsibly” was now going to be my number one goal.


Admittedly, though, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed, a bit frustrated (why, after 2 college degrees, and 10 years of industry experience was I just learning about the impacts of industry? Should I have picked that up on my own!?), and a bit concerned as to whether I could really make a difference.


Fast forward to today, and now, as a consultant, coach, and instructor, I help brands, entrepreneurs, and students start, strengthen, and scale their sustainability commitments. I’ve been a VP of global sustainability for a leading action-sports lifestyle brand, I’ve traveled the world for sustainability conferences, I’ve developed sustainability courses and workshops, and worked with some of the most iconic brands in multiple sectors … and I’m still learning.


One thing that’s changed: I know now that we (each of us) can really, indeed, make a difference.


Here’s how.


Sure, you can go on, like I did, and spend the next 10-15 years becoming an expert in the space. Go to school, take courses like the ones I’ve built, hire consultants, learn about all the most important topics: The relationship between ecosystem services and biodiversity, the difference between traceability and transparency, the relationship between global warming and climate change and deforestation and species loss, a living wage versus the minimum wage, why the sustainable development goals matter, which persistent and hazardous chemicals are in the products we use everyday, circularity vs recyclability, regenerative versus resilient - the list goes on.


And then, you can read everything you can get your hands on (and there’s plenty these days, but I’d start with The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years,

by Yvon Chounard and Vincent Stanley, then move to The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and then round it out with Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough), and watch all the great documentaries that have come out since the one that sparked my journey (A Fierce Green Fire, How to Change the World, An Inconvenient Sequel, The True Cost, Before the Flood, Kiss the Ground, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, the film I mention below, and now Seaspiracy).


And from there, you’ll do what you can to meet every fascinating person who knows anything about these topics, you'll dive into every conversation, attend every webinar and, when we are able, you’ll travel to as many conferences as your business will pay for, or that you can afford on your own. From here, with all the wisdom you have gained, you will start to effect change. Because you will be known now as the passionate one, as an expert in the field, as the person that people turn to when they need answers or advice. And when it comes to you, even though you may not know the answers, you will go and find them and fulfill that role of the expert, thus perpetuating the idea that you are in fact becoming an expert. And the amount of people that you will touch and influence will grow and grow and in 10 or 15 years you will look back and realize how many lives you have had an impact on, how many careers you might have changed, and how many brands might have heard your message.


So yes, there's that path. Or there is a path that you can start today...


While sustainability today talks much about addressing overconsumption, overproduction, underutilization, and waste, there’s no way around it … in our modern world, you’re going to be buying things. And when you do, if you really want to effect change, buy from - or shall I say support - those who are doing business the way you want to see business being done. Because every dollar we put towards one brand, service, or product over another, shows the marketplace what we value most; who we want in that role. And so in that manner, we are going to the voting booth every time we purchase, casting a vote for the change that we want to see, or for the status quo.


So, Speaking of Change


At the end of 2020, I had the amazing opportunity to contribute to a learning packet for a movie called Seeding Change | The Power of Conscious Commerce and as I watched it - over and over (and that was a good thing) - I heard thought-provoking words from legends like Paul Hawken, and heard about the commitments from the founders and CEOs at brands that I already knew and loved. But seeing the who behind the product, hearing the passion in their commitments, and learning about the way each of those brands put to work the very ethos of the word that’s come to define my career (that is, doing business in a genuine way that respects and balances the needs of and impacts on people, our planet, and their business), I couldn’t help but be moved and be reminded of the power of this concept.


Where Can You Vote With Your Dollar?


That’s easy … almost everywhere. But let’s start with the essentials in our lives, perhaps the things we buy the most of: Food and clothing, and then move to lifestyle purchases that can really make a difference.


The list below, assumes that if you’ve read this far that the following To Do list resonates with you:


  • We need to immediately, and aggressively address the climate crisis; it’s literally knocking at our front door, and won’t be knocking for much longer. It will just walk in. So that means moving away from the burning of fossil fuels, transitioning to renewable inputs and energy sources, and innovating to capture CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. By now, you should know about the 1.5 degree pathway

  • We are nothing (as a society, really) without natural resources. Natural resources come from healthy ecosystems (part of the ecosystem services we benefit from), and no ecosystem thrives without biodiversity. So, that said, everything matters - from the biggest to the smallest. Protect species, protect habitats, protect soil, protect us.

  • Our ocean may have a breaking point and none of us need to see what/where that is. The ocean, home to some of the most magnificent creatures and habitat this planet has to offer, has fed us, transported us, enlightened us, and calmed us. It has absorbed the heat we’ve trapped in our atmosphere, it has sequestered the carbon, and it has died for us, and continues to bounce back. An amazing story of resilience. How much, however, can it take? That we don’t know… If we want the ocean around (PS we don’t have a choice), we need to take better care of her (or him, your choice).

  • The linear economy is antiquated, and a circular economy may not save us, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what we’ve been doing. We’ve been extracting finite resources, burning them, sending heat trapping gases into the atmosphere, converting that energy into stuff, using that stuff for relatively short amounts of time, and then burying it in a hole in the ground, or burning it. We can do better, and my kids (and their kids) are counting on us doing better.

  • Sustainability is complex. It’s about us humans and our future and our kids’ futures, and it goes way beyond just recycling. We need to be tackling sustainability from a vantage point that looks more like the SDGs (17 targets, and 169 goals) that span from addressing and eliminating poverty and hunger, and focuses on empowering women and girls, just as much as it focuses on life on land, and life below water.


Now that we agree, it’s time to cast your ballot.


Here’s A Simple Guide to Voting With Your Dollar:



When Buying Food

  • Choose Organic - It eliminates synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified seeds, and it’s easier on soil and ecosystems.

  • Choose Fairtrade - Help ensure fair wages and good working conditions for those who make your goods.

  • Choose Local - You’ll support your community, lower fuel consumption (thus lower emissions)

  • Choose Plant Based - It’s your best bet for a climate friendly diet, and one of the easiest ways we can each battle climate change.

  • Choose Non GMO - Help avoids the vicious cycle farmers find themselves in...

  • Choose Forest Friendly - Protect vital climate sequestration and species habitat.

When Buying Clothing

  • Choose Organic - It eliminates synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified seeds, and it’s easier on soil and ecosystems.

  • Choose Fairtrade - Help ensure fair wages and good working conditions for those who make your goods.

  • Choose natural fiber - Yes, there are pros and cons associated with any and all fiber choices (that’s a topic for another book), but in general, pushing for renewable inputs (cotton, hemp, flax, tree-based, and the like) will serve us much better than the plastic inputs (polyester, nylon, etc.) that we’ve come to rely on.

  • Choosing Recycled - You’ll cut out much of the largest environmental impacts associated with the goods we make.

  • Choose 2nd Hand - You’ll address overconsumption and overproduction, and you’ll cut out even more of the largest environmental impacts associated with the goods we make.

  • Choose Durability - One of the simplest ways to reduce emissions, save water, change buying habits, and more. Buy gods that were built to last, care for them efficiently, and use them over, and over, and over again.

  • Choose Recyclability - If who you’re buying from is not offering services to repair, or take-back and recycle the goods that you buy from them, then ask them to. The innovations are there (almost), we just need to scale the system.

At Home

  • Switch to LEDs - You’ll use less energy, and save money over the long haul.

  • Reducing/Eliminating Food Waste - Did you know that, an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste? And that in the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions*.

  • Composting - Put those nutrients back into the soil!

  • Heat/Cooling Control - Every time we put on the A/C or the heat, we’re likely burning fossil fuels. Know what’s powering your grid, conserve, use wisely.

  • Install/utilize Solar - Help push the shift to renewable energy.

Transportation

  • Drive electric - This will be easier and easier as the world’s biggest automakers make this switch for us.

  • Carpool/public transportation - Less cars on the road, less fuel consumption, less emissions, less congestion, less pollution … you get the picture.

  • Walk/Bike - It’s better for your health anyway :)

  • Skip the flight - Even though flights are becoming more efficient, passenger air travel is producing the highest and fastest growth of individual emissions. That means, it’s time to take it down a notch - oh wait, we just did that (2020).

So as you can see, it’s a pretty simple list. It’s not overly complicated, no calculations required, it just involves you being a willing participant in the process; an informed voter, if you will.

So, starting today, have a look at your favorite go-to brands, suppliers, and service providers - are they following this list? Are they offering these things? They need to if they want to keep your vote, right!?

For the record, the brands that were spotlighted in Seed Change are doing just these things:

We need to all be in this together. And because there are no other incentives for brands and companies to Do The Right Thing, or to internalize their externalities, or to truly fight climate change in their business, or to get the certifications that will ensure that they’re actually providing to you what you hope they are, they’re going to need our support. And they’re going to need a lot of it.

In this marketplace, every day is a voting day. So get out there, vote for what you want to see, and make sure your voice is heard. We're all counting on you.