When Conservation Becomes Consumerism

3 mins read

On a recent spring day, I was walking in my neighborhood when I spotted an REI tag on the ground, describing a jacket as “the layer you didn’t know you needed.”

The REI tag I found on the ground.
The REI tag I found on the ground.

I found this poignant for two reasons. First: it’s ironic that a company that claims to make nature accessible ultimately contributed to litter, which harms the environment. Second: consumption is antithetical to environmentalism, which REI claims to support while simultaneously printing tags that encourage shoppers to buy something they don’t need.

These two observations illustrate a broader truth about modern outdoorsy culture and consumer culture in general: conservation and appreciation for nature have become another form of consumerism, and this is dangerous to both the environment and to individuals.

 It’s easy to view the outdoors as a trend—trends are the structure of all of today’s advertising and social media fads. Marketing campaigns and influencers neatly package products, music genres, clothing, and vacation destinations with labels like “granola,” “indie,” “coastal cowboy,” “coconut girl,” and more. Our infantile attention spans—a result of our excessive use of digital technology—are suited to viewing entire lifestyles as digestible TikTok trends. Trends like “Utah Fit Checks” and the popularity of beachy and free-spirit influencers including Lexi Hidalgo and Marla Fay have turned enjoying nature into a widespread trend epitomized by a certain style of dressing. Many “granola” social media professionals (though there are exceptions) make their living from this performative style, as they create content to promote appreciation for nature while simultaneously encouraging their followers to consume brands and products.

Popular fast fashion clothing brands like Urban Outfitters and Princess Polly turn the “aesthetic” of being environmentalist or outdoorsy into seasonal clothing lines with planned obsolescence. Fast-fashion brand Free People’s recent advertisements for their “FP Movement” line have the text, “Now trending: HIKE.” I love exploring the outdoors through a myriad of activities, and I admit that I love going to REI to look at the beautiful new clothes, gear, and all of the material goods that I could ever want. It’s natural to view buying outdoorsy products as synonymous with being a person who enjoys the outdoors.

An ad describing hiking as a trend.
An ad describing hiking as a trend.

However, seeing nature (or anything, for that matter) as a trend or a reason to shop is dangerous because it prompts consumption and distracts from environmentalism as an ideology and genuine priority. For example, buying Birkenstocks, Levi’s, or a colorful Patagonia Synchilla are good choices if you genuinely need new shoes, most of your other pairs of jeans are damaged beyond repair, or you don’t have a lightweight fleece to keep you warm. These are all popular brands that create long-lasting products, promote second-hand consumption, create their products in sustainable and ethical ways, and/or actively discourage buying new items. However, when outdoorsy items are bought only to fit a certain aesthetic or a passing whim about how you’d like to dress, conservation becomes consumption and the environment is harmed rather than helped. Overconsumption is still overconsumption even if you’re consuming recycled fabric.

Why is consumption antithetical to conservation and genuine appreciation for nature? Most products today are created using unsustainable methods and poor-quality materials that harm both people and the planet. We have created far too much and are consuming resources faster than we ought to be.

Pause before you buy flip-flops, a new swimsuit, a new après-ski outfit, the newest Owala, Hydroflask, or Stanley water bottle color, or another fleece for your everyday needs. Ask yourself whether or not you can use something you already have, or borrow something from your friends and family. Under capitalism, corporations thrive when you isolate yourself from your community and depend on shopping for your every need—bring back borrowing! Wear your jeans into the ground, and don’t hesitate to use a cute patch if they tear. Clothes are meant to be used, repaired, and used again for decades—if you can’t wear something anymore after five years because it breaks or isn’t cute anymore, you were likely a victim of fast fashion.

It feels good to invest in outdoorsy brands—such as the aforementioned Hydroflask, Patagonia, and REI—because of their practicality and quality. However, even though these products are better quality than fast fashion, their benefits are trumped by repetitive or unnecessary consumption. This principle applies in every aspect of life, from your water bottle to your car: using your ten-year-old, 18 miles-per-gallon car is better for the environment than buying a new “green car” like a Prius or Rivian.

Ultimately, you don’t need anything new to enjoy being outside. Using products that you have had for years is better for the environment than buying something new from an eco-friendly brand because of the resources new items consume. The world is beautiful and ripe for adventure, regardless of whether you have the newest, most practical, or prettiest outfit.

The bottom line is that often, the most ethical, environmental, and sustainable course of action is to simply use or repurpose the clothing and gear that you already have. Enjoy the summer weather and love the Earth with thoughtful and intentional consumption (or lack thereof).

Amala is a senior at M-A, and this is her second year in journalism. She enjoys using journalism to explore education policy and highlight extraordinary individuals in the community. She is also a part of M-A’s Leadership-ASB, and spends her free time at the beach.

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