How To Become An Astute Consumer

In this day and age, with the constant barrage of clever ads at every keystroke, people need to be smarter about what they buy, when, and why. There are a number of reasons for this. To start with, the pandemic, inflation and the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia have dug a deep hole in consumers’ wallets. The price of essential goods such as food, fuel, and utilities has skyrocketed in a short span of time, making day-to-day living a chore for many. Another very important reason is that consumers need to be part of the solution when it comes to waste management and sustainability issues.

For some time now, before entering any website I turn off all of the personalized ads and content cookies. The reason I am doing this is not so much for privacy, but for peace of mind. As a writer, I do a lot of research online, for blog articles, and product reviews, so you can probably imagine what my screen looks like when I go online. The sheer number of ads that populate my screen are more than a distraction, they are annoying.

Another reason I do this is that I don’t need to be teased, coerced, and prompted into purchasing anything at all. It’s ironic, seeing I am a copywriter and my job is to write content that titillates and engages consumers to either buy or subscribe so they can then receive ongoing emails written to persuade even the most difficult and discerning consumers to spend money. Perhaps it is precisely because I work as a copywriter that I have developed this intolerance for the subtle and conniving methods used to hook people online.

Advertising is nothing new, it wasn’t so long ago, that we couldn’t sit through a movie without the repeated commercial interruptions, which were usually a prompt to get a snack, a drink, or make a washroom run.

In the last 15 years, advertising and consumer habits have changed drastically. According to data, there are over 2.5 billion people shopping online.

Online Shopping

It was not so long ago that people used to shop locally. These days if you are a shop owner in a city or town wishing to attract more local customers you need to jump through hoops to stay in business. You’ll need a website and perhaps a few landing pages to direct customers to specific goods or services, you’ll need product reviews, testimonials, and a blog with articles that show new prospects that you are an expert in your field or that your products are superior, a better deal and so on. Then you will need to develop ad copy for social media and email marketing content to keep loyal customers and increase conversions. Wow, that is a lot of work and it comes at a cost. There was a time when all a shop owner needed to do was open the shop. Customers were acquired through word of mouth or simply because the service or product spoke for itself.

As much as shopping online has opened us up to a big wild world of endless consumer goods it has also opened up a deep dark vortex where people get sucked into a scrolling stupor. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and have enjoyed the convenience of online shopping as much as anyone else, especially during the pandemic lockdowns. But there is a downside to all of this. Let’s take for example the online fast fashion and high-tech industry that have grown in leaps and bounds over the last 15 years.

Fast Fashion Madness

The average consumer purchases 60% more clothing now than 15 years ago, however, these lower quality items being purchased last half as long. Cheap synthetic fabrics and badly sewn together garments create a vicious cycle that may be advantageous for fast fashion brands, just not as beneficial for the consumer and the environment.

For the last two decades, and thanks to e-commerce, fast fashion picked up speed, widened its reach, and increased production. Fast fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and GAP, amongst others, released anywhere from 600 to 900 new garment styles a week.

Renewing our wardrobe, every season, by buying clothes that fall apart after a few washes might have been justifiable, in some warped sense, by low costs and consumers’ insatiable desire for variety, but that is no longer a viable option. The reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels is nothing new to us and it’s undeniably the backbone of the fast fashion business model due to their reliance on synthetic fabrics.

While the responsibility to break the fast fashion model lies with the major stakeholders and policymakers, we as consumers have an important role as well. We must put an end to compulsive shopping and buy only what we really need when we need it. Consumers must contribute to achieving a more sustainable future, by buying less and developing an appreciation for quality. With quality comes durability. As consumers, the time has come to choose quality over quantity.

Learn to recognize quality so you can make smart purchases, and before buying any new item ask yourself, if you really need it, how often will you use it, and if it’s clothing ask yourself whether you will wear it at least 30 times. Unless the answer is yes, don’t purchase it.

Big Tech And The E-waste Dilemna

Another striking industry is technology. Depletion of technology metals is contributing to ecological, economic, and social deficits, with far-reaching global consequences. 

These metals are the dominant materials found in e-waste, representing approximately 60% of the total waste, comprising a multitude of items, such as household appliances, IT equipment, monitors, tools, medical devices, and much more. Data indicates that 82% of e-waste generated globally is not being recycled. 

The United Nations University estimates that an alarming 45 million tonnes of computers, televisions, mobile phones, and other electronic goods are thrown away every year. An average cell phone user replaces their unit once every 18 months. This doesn’t factor in the amount of peripheral computer equipment that is also thrown into dumps around the world, most of which end up in landfills. 

The UN University and International Telecommunication Union have estimated that the raw materials in e-waste are worth $62.5 billion annually. That exceeds the GDP of 123 countries.

I still have an iPhone 8 which I purchased used. It works perfectly well for all I need and sure I would love to have the cutting-edge camera that the new iPhone models have, but hey I own several SLR digital cameras, so I asked myself whether I really needed the new iPhone for the camera and the answer was a definite no.

Consumers Claiming Back Their Right To Repair

The laptop I’m using to write this has already started showing signs of extreme fatigue. Even with the battery charged at 100%, it turns itself off abruptly, if not powered by AC. It’s five years old and according to today’s standards, should have already been replaced. 

Electronic components have their own life, and it’s normal for some of these to need replacing in time. The problem is that in many instances, laptops, for instance, are glued, or parts are soldered together, so that if one part breaks you’ll need to replace the entire unit. This is particularly frustrating and problematic when batteries need to be serviced or replaced. It is a waste, to say the least.

It should be possible to take PCs and mobile devices apart, and for consumers to replace vital components when needed. Big Tech companies should offer spare parts for several years even once the model has been discontinued. 

There are many things that can be done to produce sustainable IT products. Standardizing cables for IT products would mean fewer cables to be manufactured and this would allow their re-use on multiple products by consumers. Companies need to start designing products that are durable, upgradeable, repairable, and reusable, whether these are computers or home appliances.

Creating a circular economy is part and parcel of the overall solution. In order for businesses to achieve a circular economy, they need to redefine growth and invest in business practices that benefit society as a whole.  

Big Tech companies need to own up to their responsibilities and become active stakeholders in implementing a circular economy with designs that take into account not only the use of an object but its lifespan and recycling as well. 

In the USA the ‘right to repair’ bill was introduced and has already gained traction thanks to backing from President Biden and Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak

In December 2021, Dell announced its plans for Concept Luna, a sustainable and repairable laptop. News has it that  Microsoft is looking into Xbox and Surface devices right to repair.  All Big Tech companies should jump on board because it won’t take long for consumers to realize and appreciate the benefits. 

Checklist to become a more astute consumer and get real value for your money

  • Choose quality over quantity
  • Buy products that have long life span
  • Buy only what you need.
  • Consume less, and you will waste less

There’s something to be said for frugality these days. Impulse control is what you need if you want to be unaffected by all the eye-candy online and not fall prey to sales pitches and compulsions. From a more philosophical point of view, we could say that supporting local businesses and buying and wasting less puts us on the path to living a sustainable lifestyle and contributing to the future wellbeing of the planet and humanity.

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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