Illustration by Francisco Martins

It’s hard to escape the “I shop, therefore I am” culture. Yet what we buy, where we buy it, where our products come from and are made, and even whether we should buy something in the first place have serious implications for the global economy and the environment.

That was the premise of a provocative April panel discussion held in The Diana Center Event Oval: Can Consumption Save the World? Moderated by Peabody- and Emmy Award–winning journalist Alison Craiglow Hockenberry ’88, adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the conversation, driven by Hockenberry’s questions, explored the complicated issues surrounding production and consumption. The panel featured Paige West, Tow Professor of anthropology; Sandra Goldmark, assistant professor of professional practice in the theatre department; Eleanor J. Sterling, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation; and Dean Cycon, founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company.

The panel explored the hidden environmental and economic costs of items like coffee and clothing, as well as ways for the audience to think about the urge to consume. The existential dilemma, expressed by West, came down to “How do you live life with the constant anxiety about what you buy and what you don’t?”

Consider the Oreo cookie. “The larger question is how consumption is often dispossessing someone somewhere else,” said West, linking the palm-tree oil used as an ingredient in the cookie—and many other products, from tennis shoes to lipstick—to these issues. For example, in comparison to our society, said West, many of those in the developing world leave a gentler footprint on the environment, “by using things until the very end of their utility.” In her work in Papua New Guinea, West saw how companies that use palm-tree oil for an ingredient in their products effectively removed that land from use by the indigenous people for 25 years.

Even an issue like fair trade isn’t as simple as one might think. Fair trade, usually defined as a trading partnership that offers greater equity in international trade by supporting farmers and producers in developing countries, can either help producers or, as sometimes happens with the certification process, be a way for savvy marketers to make their product seem more valuable, assuage consumer guilt, and charge more money for it without necessarily making a significant difference for the actual producers.

For Cycon, whose company uses fair-trade beans as a means to achieve social, economic, and environmental benefits in coffee-producing communities in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, “It’s a system that acknowledges that dispossessed people need help,” he said, and suggested the business model needs to change. “We say that growth isn’t the point of our business, it’s the outcome of business done well,” said Cycon. “You have to make companies more responsible.”

Even more adjustments might be necessary. For Sterling, it’s time to rethink our value system. “You have to keep stepping back. Are we driven by the advertising industry? You need to ask deeper questions. What are you buying for? What is your impact? Not consuming can change the world.”

It doesn’t help that there’s so much in the way of inexpensive goods out there.

As Hockenberry asked, “Doesn’t the global labor force making little money fuel the disposable culture?” When there’s an abundant supply of cheap goods—the panel pointed out that there are often hidden labor and economic costs to those items—it’s hard to justify spending money to fix them when replacement seems a smarter financial decision.

In a throwaway culture, Goldmark and her husband, Michael Banta, launched an itinerant repair service, Pop Up Repair, in 2013, precisely to address that issue. “As a set designer, I think about stuff all day long,” said Goldmark. “How do we create meaning from stuff we use to tell stories? At home, I felt we were drowning in things. We’re facing the most dire environmental challenge. When items break, there’s nowhere to go.” She and Banta launched Pop Up Repair as a place where people can bring everything—chairs, lamps, iPhones, small appliances such as toasters and blenders, toys, and stuffed animals—and have them fixed. Also being used as a research project, the service opens in various neighborhoods for a limited amount of time.

Still, Goldmark said, “The price of new goods is less than the cost of repairing them.” On a personal level, she is “struggling to…buy less. I think about what I buy, and will spend a little more money to go somewhere I believe in.”

Conscious consuming may, in fact, be a solution to saving the planet. “One of the things that makes me hopeful is that students are thinking very carefully about these [questions], like the labor cost of goods,” said West.

According to Cycon, there is no way around consumption. We are all—and will remain—consumers. The key is to buy consciously. “Consumption has to save the planet because all we do is consume,” said Cycon. “Everybody should go home and think of one or two things to research—like fair trade, or sustainability. People need information to make good choices.”