Ethical Consumerism? I Don’t Buy It

Consumer power is a popular myth that a lot of people buy into, but it is also a dangerous one.


A typical UK high street: chain stores and cheap clothing (Photo: the Telegraph)

A typical UK high street: chain stores and cheap clothing (Photo: the Telegraph)

The concept of ethical consumerism has gained momentum in recent years, to the point where it could be considered mainstream. This sounds like a good thing, but too much emphasis on individual responsibility has created a culture of self-blame that obscures the wider problems. It allows companies to get away with exploiting cheap labour overseas, while individuals are berated for shopping at Amazon instead of charity shops.

Not only is this reductive, but it has roots in classism; the biggest culprits are also the cheapest. People on the minimum wage can hardly be expected to spend that money on whole foods and cruelty free soap, when there are much cheaper options available in supermarkets and chain stores. It is time-consuming to spend hours on the internet researching moral grey areas, particularly since that information is usually difficult to find – companies are not exactly advertising this online for everyone to see. Inadvertently, we have created a system where shopping ethically is exclusive to the privileged, but the moral judgement is open to all.

Consumer power advocates argue that change comes through individual action, such as company boycotts, but the financial constraints on many people make this almost impossible. Despite frequent calls to boycott Amazon over its human rights record, it maintains a near-monopoly on online shopping and delivery, while companies such as Starbucks and Vodafone continue to cost the UK billions in unpaid tax, almost completely unchallenged. It sounds defeatist, but we as individuals have no power to challenge this, and it is time we realised it.

Factory workers in Bangladesh (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

Factory workers in Bangladesh (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

Rejecting the idea of consumer power would shift focus to the companies themselves, and the laws (or lack thereof) that allow them to use exploitative tactics to get ahead. Companies willing to sacrifice ethics for profit have a huge advantage in the current market, because it is significantly cheaper and more efficient to source labour and factories overseas and pay workers as little as possible. Many of the anti-immigration arguments focus on the threat that immigrant workers pose to British jobs, ignoring the fact that if companies were unable to lower wages in this way, the problem would not exist. If we want to be able to support British jobs and British workers, it is the companies who must change, not the individuals.

Lush has built a successful brand on ethical practices (Source: Lush)

Lush has built a successful brand on ethical practices (Source: Lush)

There are currently too few companies meeting basic ethical requirements and even the most socially conscious shopper would have a difficult time buying everything with a clean conscience, especially since so much of the relevant information is buried. Companies like Lush and the Body Shop base much of their branding around the idea of inexpensive, cruelty-free products, and their success points to the existing demand. While there is a place for individual action – hey, I’m vegetarian and I recycle! – its impact is hugely overemphasised: industry and agriculture account for almost a third of global emissions and including transport and commercial buildings could bring the level closer to 50%. Incentivising industry to act in a more eco-friendly and ethically conscious way will have a much greater effect than monitoring your own carbon footprint.

It is time to stop blaming ourselves for the way the system works, and instead demand that governments and companies take responsibility for their own actions; this could be in the form of petitions, campaigns, or anything else that draws attention back towards what is actually going on. Ethically shopping is hugely important from a human rights perspective, but while we should all be conscious of the problems, corporations are the ones who need to change their behaviour, not individuals. For this to happen, we need a government unafraid to put its foot down in defence of moral and ethical ideals. This will not happen if we remain distracted by our own guilt; politicians must be held accountable, and we should stop treating these rights as anything other than fundamental requirements.

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