The Responsible Consumer

The Responsible Consumer

by Emily McLendon, ABC Gardener-Writer

We live in a culture of consumption and misuse. We upgrade our phones and cars every few years, captivated by newer and better versions that have life-changing features like back-up cameras and thinner designs. Our children are raised on plastic-wrapped toys and meals carried in one-time-use containers, so that when they’re old enough to make consumption decisions independently they feel no guilt in producing their 4.6 pounds of daily trash.


Nowhere is this ideology manifested more than in our food system. Industrial agriculture is the profit-oriented way in which the Western world goes about food production today. The industrial food system is often criticized for valuing quantity over quality, creating more waste than product, and depleting natural resources in the process. While these are all valid reproaches, they pale in comparison to the deepest harm of this system: the estrangement between humans and the natural world.


We’re aware of a time when communities were supported by family farms and every ingredient of a meal could be traced back to the plant or animal that produced it. But today, few of us are able to trace the origins of our lunch past the food mart that sold its ingredients. We see the food on our lunch tray, but have no knowledge of where it came from or how it reached our plate.


But how did this happen? In Wendell Berry’s book The Unsettling of America, he asserts that specialization of jobs played a large role in disconnecting people from our food knowledge. Although the goal of our specialized system is to ensure that responsibilities are given to the most skilled and best prepared people, the structure actually ensures the impossibility of community wholeness. By creating specialists, this system ensures that people are trained deeply to do one thing, but in the process individuals become ignorant of the implications and impacts of their “one thing.” Thus, as our society becomes more intricately specialized, our communities lose their holistic functionality.


“We have given up the understanding—dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought—that we and our country create one another, depend on one another, and are literally part of one another…”

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America


As a result of specialization, thousands of “one thing” roles link together to bring food to our plates. We have a different individual to choose a seed, plant the seed, tend to the field, spray herbicides, harvest the crop, determine which crops meet standards, drive the harvest to a processing plant, unload the truck, clean the crop, package the crop, and distribute to grocery stores where you and I have the opportunity to push a shopping cart past identical ears of corn, waxy green apples, and bruiseless peaches. And even that chain of specialization doesn’t take into account the additional steps involved with processed foods, corporate decision-making, commodification and other uses of “food,” or jobs fulfilled by machinery. There is no longer a place in our food system for the farmer who sees his crop from seed to plate, and through the obliteration of his place our understanding of the food we eat has dissolved.


“The dearth of cuisine-based guiding rules has left people with an inability to make wise food choices.”

                                    –Gillian Crowther, Eating Culture


In the shadow cast by specialized food production, most of us fill the role of consumer, though we know not what we consume. This is a dangerous place where individuals lack the power to inspire change, and generally do not even know enough about the change they desire.


We are not, however, forced to step into the role of submissive consumers. Although the passive consumer is the easy and most common reaction to our specialized, industrial food industry, individuals and families are increasingly stepping instead into a different role: The Responsible Consumer.


“If a consumer begins to think and act in consideration of his responsibilities, then he vastly increases his capacities as a person. And he begins to be effective in a different way—a way that is smaller perhaps, and certainly less dramatic, but sounder, and able sooner or later to assume the force of example.”

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America


A Responsible Consumer is responsible in that she is also (1) a critical consumer, questioning goods, their ethics of production, and impacts of consumption; (2) a moderate consumer, reducing her needs and purchasing only what is necessary; and (3) a producer, refusing to rely fully on other individuals and capable of solving some of her own needs.


And these changes have begun in small-scale reactions. As consumers become dissatisfied with industrial agriculture, demand for alternative food practices and trends are becoming more popular, and connections between individuals, communities, and the environment are reforming. The gardens at Berry College are an example of this reaction: our hands-on approaches emphasize a connection between the earth’s wellbeing and the wellness of those who consume the foods produced. Interest in more connected food systems is also increasing today through active responses like co-op farming, community gardens, and the locavore movement. Our younger generations have the opportunity to step into the role of responsible consumer, changing consumption culture by altering personal habits.


“Our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.”

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America


As a consumer, you also have the opportunity to influence culture with your consumption choices. The simplest way to transition from submissive to responsible consumerism is by wisely considering your purchases. As Temra Costa advocates in her book Farmer Jane, “every time we buy food, we vote with our dollars for either chemical or non-chemical agriculture, for fair trade or for seasonal foods.” By researching consumption choices, purchasing locally when possible, and seeing consumption beyond your “one thing” specialization, you can easily become a responsible consumer. And when we gain enough responsible consumer individuals, we will move into something much deeper: a responsible consumer culture.


“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

Let’s begin the effort.

Return to ABC Blog Homepage