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Ethical Consumerism, Part 1: Is There Such a Thing?

I’m going to do a few posts on the general topic of ethical consumerism and this first one will address the claim that there is no such thing. You may have seen this online at some point:

There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism

If you look at the statement from one angle, you could extract an element of truth from it: that the best way to reduce your impact is to reduce consumption. For sure, a capitalist system that’s built on continual growth and acquisition is deeply problematic.

But what the statement above is really implying is that, as long as we live in a free market, companies will exploit people and our planet to undercut each other. This has certainly applied to a lot of commerce that has taken place since the dawn of the corporation. There’s a good (but anger-inducing) book called The Corporation that explores this theme – I’ll cover it in a future post. But there are two ways in which things can take a turn for the better:

  1. A change of mindset in a large proportion of humanity (including some corporate and political leaders).
  2. Sufficient consumer demand for products and services that are respectful to people and the environment.

These two things go hand-in-hand, but for reasons described in The Corporation, the consumer demand aspect is essential. Right now, consumer demand is patchy: it has brought about significant improvements in several areas, but some (consumers and companies) are still in the dark ages.

A shift in consumer demand requires that we take the time to educate ourselves and to be more conscious (and conscientious) about our choices. That is Ethical Consumerism.

There’s really no doubt that greater demand for more responsible products and services will make a difference: the driving force of commerce is supply and demand. And that brings us to the final thing that ethical consumerism deniers like to say; it’s often represented by this image:

Outline of brands owned by the “Big 10” multinational food companies (it probably needs updating). Source: Oxfam. Oxfam also publishes an annual scorecard for these 10 companies.

Is ethical consumerism possible in this age of multinational corporations?

The image is attempting to tell us that it doesn’t matter which brand we choose; everything is controlled by just a few companies. There are several things wrong with this idea.

  1. While a few companies control the lion’s share of the market in many cases, there are always alternatives. While researching the items we most commonly use (for the Daily Footprint posts), from toothpaste and soap to coffee and headphones, I’ve never had to say, “Oh well, there’s really no option here but to support Evil-Corp.” In every category I’ve found some terrible choices (often a bestseller) and a few good choices.  The fact that the responsible companies are usually in the minority (in terms of market share) underlines the need for consumers to support them.
  2. Even if you’re stuck with the big brands, there are better and worse choices among them, and that’s where ethical consumerism ideas like the Green Stars Project come in – to help us get an idea of how they rank. Supporting a better choice shifts the demand needle a little bit in the right direction.
  3. Ethical brands (subsidiaries) owned by larger corporations are often still doing good things and comprised largely of well-meaning people (I’m writing this post in Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon). When deciding on a Green Stars rating you can take into account the ethics of both the brand/subsidiary and the parent company.

If a big company wants introduce more responsible brands, that’s actually a good trend. In the majority of cases, however, I would still rather support a more mission-driven (triple bottom line) company than a diverse multinational giant. Just don’t let the image above fool you into thinking that they don’t exist. 

There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. I feel that this statement is a cop-out. If you want to eat at Burger King every day or buy sweatshop clothes from Walmart, then feel free to go ahead and do that. But to try and justify it by claiming that it’s all pointless and that, in fact, it doesn’t matter where you spend your money? That sounds a lot like the someone who has just given up (and is trying to convince others to give up too). Since it started with a meme, here’s one in response:

Is ethical consumerism only for the rich?

Don’t let people convince you that ethical consumerism is only for the wealthy. I’ve lived without a salary for the last 17 months, and I’m pretty sure that my spending habits have improved over that time. A minimal lifestyle that reduces (or eliminates) consumption of meat, energy, convenience food, fast fashion, packaged goods, and unnecessary luxuries is more ethical and also more affordable. Buying less also gives you space to breathe and to consider the impact of the items that you do need to purchase.

In short, not only is ethical consumerism possible in a free market, it is vital to getting our planet and society out of the hole that unscrupulous capitalists have dug us into.  

Next up: Why is palm oil bad?

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