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Guiltfree consumption

Text: Ramon Schollaardt Media: Raquel Kuperus Graphics: Sanne van Lieshout


Failure. I failed. I didn’t need that product. Why do I have it? How did they sell it to me? How could I buy a cheap piece of clothing while I knew that it was made by a child working for a minimum wage on the other side of the world?

Are these recognizable questions? Well, let’s talk about guilt. Guilt comes in all sorts and forms. There are examples of people with ecorexia or who feel guilty about eating an unhealthy snack or buying that cheap piece of clothing that might not be completely ethically produced. It all comes from guilt. The guilt of harming the planet, the guilt of what others might think of you, the guilt of choosing your own pleasure and appearance over the human rights of others.


I feel that since the rise of social media, we share more and are being observed by everybody and everything around us. We are being judged more by others too. However, we also became more aware of the world around us. About the problems on earth, as well as the different possibilities, like living a vegan existence. There is a trend of minimalism, where people try to live with as few things as possible. All these options might make you feel bad if you don’t have that lifestyle. Do you really need all these products, and do you really need to eat that steak tonight?

The problem

So, let’s talk about the problem. The problem is….

Well, the problem is that you buy things in the first place. So, what if you would throw (or give) all your things away and focus on what you really need. This fits in the minimalism movement. But will living a minimalist life really solve the problem of guilt when consuming? Since if you look at what people who live a minimalist lifestyle have, you see they still have more (expensive) products than most of the other inhabitants of our beautiful world, is that fair? I think that to solve the guilt consumption, you must go to extremes. I personally even think that if you would like to achieve this, you will end up with the conclusion that you do not or cannot enjoy your life anymore. I don’t think that is the solution, so you need to find a way in between. Companies try to mislead you by making you feel less ashamed by self-made quality marks, by letting you pay a little extra to “compensate” for the “damage” you do, however, this will not solve your problem. Compensating is not solving a problem.

However, most companies, more or less, hide the things you should feel guilty about to make you buy their products.  

I will discuss some examples of guilty consumption.



“But the cow is already dead”. Or “If I stop eating meat, this will not change the world”. Bullshit!

In the past, it was a luxury to have meat on your plate every single day. Nowadays some people always expect a piece of meat on their plate, on their bread. This growing demand made the meat industry grow. So why shouldn’t it be possible to go back to how it was? That it was normal to eat meat on special occasions. And to respect it even more.

We totally lost connection with the food. People don’t want to know about the pollution of their meat consumption. Because you worked really hard you deserve that piece of meat.

I am not saying that everybody should be vegan. Because that would be the other extreme probably. Then we keep cutting trees because people do expect to have their soya burger every day. There should be a healthy balance.


“Oh, it’s summer, let’s buy new clothes because last years are really out of fashion.” Is currently a quite normal sentence. But where did this come from? Why do we need “new” things so badly?

Because it is cheap, it is also worth less to you? Because you didn’t make it yourself, it has less value to you? Because it is the job of some little child on the other side of the world to make cheap disposable clothes for us?

Wait… what???

Leaving the fairness of our clothing for what it is now, let’s look at the other aspects of our clothing needs. To produce a cotton shirt, the main raw material is water. Water? Yes, water. But why isn’t that on the label? 2.700 liters of water is used to produce the cotton for one cotton t-shirt. This is as much drinking water as one needs in 900 days (WWF, 2013)! What if you would have to carry 2.700 liters with you every day?

That isn’t even everything. For that beautiful T-shirt to come home with you, it  needs to be transported by an oil tanker from the other side of the world to the western world. Maybe even by one of the 16 biggest freight ships of the world who pollute as many sulfur as all of the cars in the world together do produce.

Do you still want to buy that nice T-shirt?


One clear example of guilty consuming nowadays is traveling by plane. People do, more or less, know the consequences when flying. “Flying from Amsterdam Schiphol to London Heathrow and back generates about 106 kg CO2. There are 8 countries where the average person produces less CO2 in a year.”(Kommenda, 2019). However, people still fly. It even feels sometimes a taboo. When you hear someone goes on a trip for a couple of days, you might probably ask if they go by plane. However, nowadays asking that has a second layer. Since it almost immediately feels as if you judge them on choosing to travel by plane, rather than choosing other options. However, if it is outside Europe it is more accepted. Because of course you have the right to see the rest of the world, but isn’t it egoistic to make the decision to pollute the world because you want to see the Golden Gate Bridge in real life? Since your decision causes an effect that is broader than your own world. It does harm to the world.


I mentioned a lot of influences of your consumption on the environment. Everything you do has an influence on the climate. You should not shower, you should not heat your home, you should not eat meat, you should not leave the light on, you should not buy new products, because you don’t need it and our planet is dying. But what should I do then? Should I die? Then I am not doing any harm to the environment anymore. This way of thinking is called “Ecorexia”, being so focused on not having a bad influence on the environment that you are (almost) killing yourself. You can’t enjoy anything anymore, because how could you enjoy now and take that chance away from our future generations?

Do I already make you feel ashamed? Do you feel uncomfortable? Well, this was only a selection of all the shame that is put on us every single day.

How to solve/who is responsible?

What could we as designers do to lower the feeling of guilt when people consume? Is it our responsibility? And when is it good enough? You don’t want to offer people a possibility to compensate for their guilt in the first place. We need to change the whole system. We should overpower the fossil fuel and meat industry lobbies. We should change the whole production process. Grow local, assemble locally. Subsidize energy-neutral products and services. Put a ban on unequal and unsafe work.  We should as well, in the user scenarios and personas, take into account what people feel guilty about and try to improve the (production)process in such a way that this guilt is as minimal as possible. And remember that you probably feel guilty about other things than your neighbor.

However not feeling guilty is not possible, at least at this moment. A little shame is needed for people to change. However, we should not make people feel too bad, because for the world to change, we are going to need all the help and support we need. Putting people against each other is not the solution. So, don’t judge others for their choices, because this will not help. Rather put your energy in changing the system.

Take away

Even though it would be great if nobody felt guilty about what they did and bought in their lives, it is impossible. Therefore, it is better if, when you are about to consume, you first check the alternatives. For example, taking the train instead of a plane. If you have at least thought about the alternatives and made a sound conclusion, this will lower your guilt and it helps to change the way we consume right now.


WWF. (2013, January 16). The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt | Stories | WWF. Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-impact-of-a-cotton-t-shirtKommenda, N. (2019, July 19). How your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year. Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/jul/19/carbon-calculator-how-taking-one-flight-emits-as-much-as-many-people-do-in-a-year ( Guardian estimate based on Atmosfair data. Averaged CO2 emissions only)