Empowering Conscious Consumption

Wilburn, Eric | June 5, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Participants explore consumption in America at the Stanford Design School | Image by Nico Sandi

What are the drivers of unconscious consumption?

On May 14th, an interdisciplinary group of fifteen Stanford undergraduate and graduate students came together at the Stanford Design School to explore consumption in America. American culture in many ways revolves around consumption. While we have known for decades that our consumption often detracts from the well-being of others, we are quickly finding that often our consumption actually detracts from our own well-being. But breaking out of this cycle of inefficient and unhealthy consumption can be difficult when we are not mindful or conscious of our purchasing patterns and the powers that influence those patterns.

The Empowering Conscious Consumption working group represents a broad spectrum of students from the field of psychology, to documentary film, to environmental engineering. This group will participate in a series of workshops over the next six months to explore unconscious consumption and develop strategies to influence the main drivers of consumption. The workshop hosted on May 14th was the first in the series and focused on mapping the underlying drivers of consumption and developing a series of problem statements that capture the primary drivers of consumption.

This working group takes a very different approach from the normal academic round-table discussion of an issue, which generally assesses from a 30,000-foot view. Our goal in this first workshop was to create an environment of belonging, a community of people passionate about exploring the causes of consumption, and a space in which people were willing to be vulnerable and explore this challenge in their own lives. In my experience at Stanford, academics often discuss the issue, but they make it impersonal, they don’t look inwards and explore how the issue manifests itself in their own personal life.

To kick off the workshop we did a series of design thinking ice breakers to foster human connection and create a safe physical and psychological space. Once this space was established, we ran a series of activities to begin to brainstorm the drivers of unconscious consumption and captured those thoughts on sticky notes.

As a group, we then watched an interview in which a British woman discussed her challenge with overshopping controlling her life. We asked the students to write down the specific reasons that they were hearing as to why she overshopped; reasons ranged from her identity tied to her clothing, to wanting to be socially accepted.

The real brainstorming energy began to flow when each student started sharing stories and experiences in their personal life in which they observed unconscious and/or unhealthy consumption or when they experienced it themselves. I was inspired by how quickly the barriers dissolved and the awkwardness dissipated between students who had never before met. The curiosity, passion and energy began to flow. For about 45 minutes, each group was lively and listening and present for each other. They were engaged and animated in a manner that I rarely see in an academic setting.

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

With tables full of sticky notes, each group then began grouping the sticky notes in thematic areas on a white board and naming these thematic areas. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly these groups honed in on the main drivers that I have been exploring for the last six months in my work.

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

The main thematic areas groups highlighted that drivers of consumption include self-worth, pleasure, belonging and social acceptance, identity, marketing, capitalism, our surroundings and social norms.

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

Once each group had finished mapping the drivers, they spent 15 minutes defining 3-5 problem statements for the phrase, “The cause of unconscious consumption is…”.

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

The environmental movement has long focused on using extrinsic tools, the carrot and the stick, to influence human consumption behavior. While these approaches such as taxes, regulations and incentives are incredibly valuable efforts, there is another space that is largely overlooked. The student-developed problem statements indicate that we may want to devote more resources to understanding and influencing the psycho-emotional drivers of consumption. We would be wise to spend more time listening to the individual instead of grouping people into tribes and writing them all off as one type of person or another.

In the following workshops, we will take one of these thematic problem areas per workshop and brainstorm how we can begin to influence it. Given the problem statements that were developed in the first workshop, I have a feeling we will spend much less time talking about technology and policy and much more time talking about psychology, sociology and the human experience.

My main take-away from this whole experience? To really dig into an issue and understand it, we have to make it personal. We must inspire people to reflect on their own lives and create a source of empathy between themselves and the people most affected. We have the opportunity to create spaces of belonging and community, where people are comfortable being vulnerable and can create deep and meaningful connections. The academic world shouldn’t solely be about knowledge creation. We are humans too, and we need belonging.

Empowering Conscious Consumption working group

According to a 2015 study, only 50% of Stanford students reported Diener Flourishing Scale scores indicating positive mental health. Worse, 7% of students reported suicidal ideation, that’s over 1,000 students. We should be designing academic workshops, programs and activities that are spaces that connect, spaces that push back against the ego-centric, competitive, individualism that is a primary cause of loneliness, toxic to mental and emotional health.

And maybe this is all connected; the space of belonging we created in the workshop could be vital to reducing consumption writ large. Maybe if we want to solve unconscious consumption, we should work on making sure that people are experiencing deep and meaningful connections in the workplace and in their everyday lives – soul food. I hypothesize that if we focus on community, if we focus on belonging, maybe we won’t need to consume as many material goods to fill those holes in our hearts.


Special thanks to the Stanford Vice Provost for Graduate Education Student Projects for Intellectual Community Enhancement program for providing the funding for this working group and the Stanford d.School for providing the studio space to realize the event. Additional thanks to Nico Sandi for providing the images used in this article.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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  • In my estimation the purpose of morality is to keep society safe from being undermined by cheaters and bullies. If cheaters get away with breaking the rules to get things, then so many people see this “injustice” that they lose their respect and trust for the rules, and for the administrators. Then they try to bypass the moral system themselves and they tend to support leaders who pride themselves in ignoring the moral line. Morality is basic to humans and bypassing it leads to dehumanization and all that entails. Morality is about sustaining human society by preventing people from “getting away with murder”. If people can get away with bullying than the biggest and strongest bully sets the rules. This is “Might Makes Right”. Morality replaces might makes right with regulated behaviour. No one is above the law in a moral system. Morality works best on a small scale because then everyone participates in following the rules and monitoring for violations. Everyone knows everyone else so it is harder to get away with breaking the rules. When human society exists on a much larger scale, all other human institutions, such as educational, religious, legal, political, and cultural should and often do work to reinforce the moral rules.

    Morality is a system where everyone falls under the same rules. When society becomes too unequal, then a minority of people reach a high status and are considered to be “above the rules” this undermines morality, both because some people are allowed to “get away with murder” and because if everyone can see that they are doing this, they also begin to stop following the rules themselves. Once this negative process gets going it becomes contagious and undermines social order.

    We can see the current threat to human civilization and to biodiversity in the light of this analysis. Some people are encouraging themselves and others to do things that are undermining the future of human civilization. These people are like vandals who destroy a reservoir that a community has built and tended over the generations. Without the water in reserve, the community many not be able to survive if the rains do not come.

    It’s a huge issue Eric. I think it’s a case of building an ideology to counter authoritarianism and unregulated Capital. “Ideology” is kind of tainted because of its association with Marxist analysis. We can think of it as organizing a way of teaching the path to sustainability. How do we stop the vandals? I think we should concentrate on two moral issues: 1. reversing the present course, ie., transitioning off fossil fuels. 2. Reducing inequality.
    Our use and extraction of fossil fuels is the number one cause of the destruction of biodiversity. Inequality is the greatest avenue for social strife and disorder. Aiming our ideological focus on these two issues will gain us the greatest leverage.

  • Great work being done here, I commend the authors. As a student of philosophy I feel that my discipline is partly to blame for creating the groundwork for consumerism. Locke, Hume, Smith, Voltaire,and Bentham were basically cheerleaders for Capitalism; but two hundred years later, we are witnessing the deeper negative psychological, social, and environmental down sides. I see this as a moral issue, because naked Capital is undermining both the Earth’s biodiversity and human civilization, all at the same time. Capitalism has no moral line, no way of stopping its own inexorable advance. Morality exists as the primary means of maintaining sustainable societies. It may be the only basic tool that can turn this situation around, but it will require greater participation on the part of all of us.

    • Eric Wilburn

      Hi Charles,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and I completely agree with your thoughts that we need to address morality and explore how we can shift the cultural values that intrinsically influence human behavior. We are currently exploring on a few strategies to meet people and organizations where they are at to address with mental and emotional health issues, initially focusing in the academic and corporate spaces. Our approach right now explores how we can create (or transform) spaces such that deep and meaningful connections can be made with ourselves and others to foster belonging, decrease loneliness and amplify pro-social values such as humility, gratitude, compassion and interdependence. Essentially we are looking at ways to begin to shift morality in a manner that the average American won’t see as radical. In ways that help people who may not identify with the environmental movement, begin to engage with morality in other spaces in their life and have it organically influence their behavior towards pro-environmental.

      I’d love your thoughts on low barrier approaches and strategies you can think of to reach people with this message in a manner that they are motivated to engage with and with which they can identify.

      • Let’s say the purpose of morality is to keep society safe from being undermined by cheaters and bullies. If cheaters get away with breaking the rules to get things, then so many people see this “injustice” that they lose their respect and trust for the rules, and for the administrators. Then they try to bypass the moral system themselves and they tend to support leaders who pride themselves in ignoring the moral line. Morality is basic to humans and bypassing it leads to dehumanization and all that entails. Morality is about sustaining human society by preventing people from “getting away with murder”. If people can get away with bullying than the biggest and strongest bully sets the rules. This is “Might Makes Right”. Morality replaces might makes right with regulated behaviour. No one is above the law in a moral system. Morality works best on a small scale because then everyone participates in following the rules and monitoring for violations. Everyone knows everyone else so it is harder to get away with breaking the rules. When human society exists on a much larger scale, all other human institutions, such as educational, religious, legal, political, and cultural should and often do work to reinforce the moral rules.

        Morality is a system where everyone falls under the same rules. When society becomes too unequal, then a minority of people reach a high status and are considered to be “above the rules” this undermines morality, both because some people are allowed to “get away with murder” and because everyone can see that they are doing this and they also begin to stop following the rules themselves. Once this negative process gets going it becomes contagious and destroys social order.

        We can see the current threat to human civilization and to biodiversity in the light of this analysis. Some people are encouraging themselves and others to do things that are undermining the future of human civilization. These people are like vandals who destroy a reservoir that a community has built and tended over the generations. Without the water in reserve, the community is vulnerable to being wiped out if the rains do not come.

        It’s a huge issue Eric. I think it’s a case of building an ideology to counter authoritarianism, and unregulated Capital. “Ideology” is kind of tainted because of its association with Marxist analysis. We can think of it as a way of organizing a path to sustainability. How do we stop the vandals? I think we should concentrate on two moral issues: 1. reversing course, or transitioning off fossil fuels. 2. Reducing inequality.
        Our use and extraction of fossil fuels is the number one cause of the destruction of biodiversity. Inequality is the greatest avenue for social strife and disorder. Aiming our ideological focus on these two issues will gain us the greatest leverage.

  • Beaut Eric! I will be interested to see the results
    of your enquiry.