I want to live a conscious lifestyle, but I don’t want to feel guilty when I don’t, or choose not to, make a conscious decision. In this blog series I explore my guilt trip for various product categories such as fashion, food in general – and meat in specific – or my use of plastics and cosmetics. I want to take you along my learning path on what to do when feeling guilty and when to accept it. Hopefully you can learn from my experience or perhaps you can be one of my teachers? – I would love to hear your thoughts!

But why do I feel guilty? I don’t see myself living in a cave, working in my own organic vegetable garden and herding my happy livestock all day. I adapted to a modern lifestyle, but am aware that some parts of this lifestyle has a negative impact on our planet. Therefore I want to live a conscious lifestyle. So why am I feeling guilty when living this conscious lifestyle? And more importantly: how do I get rid of these guilty feelings when I actually do something positive?

When I feel guilty, because I don’t live up to my own conscious values, I want to see this as an opportunity to be more aware and learn how I can make more conscious choices next time.

Our society used to be more transparent

Truth is, that we have created a very complex society for ourselves. We don’t live in a time anymore when one person who is good at gardening, trades their home-grown potatoes with the neighbour across the street, for milk from his happy cows. All supply lines were short and clear. You knew what you were getting and from whom. If you knew that one particular farmer didn’t treat his animals right, you would not buy from him – and maybe even protest against him continuing his farm.

When unanswered questions turn into guilt

Like you, I love to travel. I love to explore the world, meet people from different cultures, see beautiful, foreign architecture and I like to be surprised by unknown, exotic tastes. This means that I regularly get on a plane – yes, a plane, the most polluting way to travel. And I eat in restaurants that I don’t know enough about to assess them properly. Do they use local, organic products? Are these products sustainably produced? Does every worker in the supply chain get, at least, a liveable wage? Questions, questions, questions, run through my head when I flick through the delicious dishes on the menu. And there it is: the guilt. The feeling that because of my need for pleasure, I abuse the environment or eat an animal that lived a horrible life. So why am I feeling guilty when I actually do something positive?

Guilt is all around

Not only travelling by plane or eating in a restaurant gives me a guilty feeling. There are lots of situations where this nasty feeling pops up: I forget a shopping bag and have to buy a new plastic bag: guilt! I forget my refillable water bottle and buy a bottle of water: guilt! I need new clothes, see a fantastic pair of pants, but I don’t know how the brand rates on fair trade and sustainability. I give in to my ‘need’ for new, cool pants and yes, you guessed it right: guilt!

Can’t I do or buy anything anymore without feeling guilty? Without having to stop in my tracks and research the product and brand thoroughly before I allow myself to buy it? Or should I change my view on guilt?

What is guilt?

When reading up on the psychology of guilt, I came across these two quotes and they struck a cord in me:

“Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realises – accurately or not – that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.” (“Guilt”. Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland)

or the more accessible quote:

“Guilt is a way we have of recognising that we have not lived up to our own values and standards. At its best, it is an opportunity to acknowledge and rectify mistakes.” (Quote by F. Diane Barth)

I can confirm that guilt is an emotional experience. But not one that you should nourish and keep. Of course I could lower my standards as a solution. But my goal is to contribute to a better world, not to not feel guilty anymore; right?! And that’s why the second quote resonates with me so much. When I feel guilty, because I don’t live up to my own conscious values, I want to see this as an opportunity to be more aware and learn how I can make more conscious choices next time.

So how do I learn from my ‘mistakes’ and stop myself from feeling guilty for not choosing for conscious options more often? As with so many other things, it is easier said than done. But these are the three things I do to reduce my guilt:

1 Educate myself step by step

I think I found the answer by tackling it step by step. Getting more information on the supply chains of the products and services that I buy. Normally I do some research myself. Via general websites on sustainability, I get an impression of what to look for in regards to a specific product group. I then look for information on the company’s website or I go to websites of trusted companies that do the research for me – such as: Rank a Brand, Fairtrade International, UTZ and many other sustainable, organic and Fair Trade certifications and labels.

2 Ask questions

Asking my suppliers questions, is also a good way of getting information. Another advantage of doing this, is that, with my question, I plant a seed in the thoughts of my supplier. I let them think about their supply chain. And hopefully they will ask themselves the question, why they are not more sustainable; and do something about it. Simply because I’ve asked them the question.

3 Accept my limits – I’m not a saint

The solution to ‘just’ educate yourself step by step sounds very simple and doable. But I can tell you that the more you know, the more complex it all gets. As said before: we’ve created a very complex society for ourselves. Finding the right information in the complexity of businesses, supply chains, possibilities, innovations and what else, is an ENORMOUS task. Even with all the certifications and labels that are around.

Therefore I also need to find a level of acceptance. Acceptance that I am not a saint and cannot know everything. I have to accept that my will to know more and actively look for information to educate myself, is better than feeling overwhelmed and doing nothing at all.

In the next blog I will explore my guilt feelings when buying new clothes.