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Buy stuff, end capitalism?

The ideology of ethical consumerism

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It seems impossible to avoid partaking in the ills of capitalism when you’re a consumer. But some people think we still have the agency to resist the logic of the market that wants us to be acting as self-interested individuals, purchasing the best goods at the lowest price, without thinking of the collective consequences. Ethical consumerism aims to avoid some of the moral shortcomings of the market, like pollution, animal cruelty, or exploitative wages. But is it really possible to promote ethical causes simply by buying stuff? And can we really use the market to critique capitalism? Sabrina Martin thinks that despite its many problems, ethical consumerism has the potential to restructure the market's priorities.

 

Black Friday is a strange day: a celebration of consumerist culture, and at the same time a reminder of its ills. Images of people mobbing shopping centres in hunt of the perfect bargain can be upsetting to watch, while at the same time it’s hard to see who exactly we are benefitting if we resist doing our holiday shopping on a day when everything is on discount. It seems impossible to avoid being a consumer within a capitalist market, and thus be pushed into partaking in its often-unpalatable practices. But some people think there is a way of resisting the logic of the market that wants consumers always to be looking for the best goods at the cheapest price: ethical consumerism. Last year The Guardian reported that UK spending in the ‘ethical market’ is now worth £41bn (though statistics on this vary widely). Accenture has even predicted a new era of ethical consumerism for at least the next decade.
  
Ethical consumerism starts with the premise that goods and a growing number of targeted services available on the market have moral shortcomings: they may contribute to pollution or deforestation, they may perpetuate cruelty to animals, or use low-wage labour. Ethical consumers show their dissatisfaction with this status quo by purchasing products or services that don’t engage with these practices. On the face of it, it appears to be an individualist act of moralism and activism targeted at collective problems that relies on the market as its mechanism of action: ‘voting with your dollar’, as the saying goes. Yet, even the most self-interested or -regarding consumer is still, by definition, participating in a social act through the use of the market, so the individualism that we observe in ethical consumerism actually gives way to an acknowledgement of collective responsibility. So we have to ask: to what extent can the market be an effective tool for activism, and is ethical consumerism a kind of critique of capitalism, or simply another manifestation of it?
 

Ethical consumerism and its discontents
There are myriad criticisms to be levied against ethical consumerism, ranging from the use of the free market to advance causes of justice to the claim that the onus of justice shouldn’t and can’t fall solely on individuals, from the fact that it’s a privilege to be able to choose to consume ethically to the idea that any system that tries to redress capitalism is doomed to fail. Yet, given ethical consumerism’s growing prevalence, even among those who are critical of the movement (cards on the table: I count myself among these participant-critics), it’s worth investigating what the ideological underpinnings of the movement are.

To anti-capitalists, the use of market mechanisms to execute ethical behaviour or acts of justice seems counterintuitive and counterproductive.

For one thing, to anti-capitalists, the use of market mechanisms to execute ethical behaviour or acts of justice seems counterintuitive and counterproductive. Further, ethical consumerism has been seen as a way for companies to greenwash or pinkwash—when companies play up their environmental and feminst credentials, respectively—our moral concerns away about their production practices. At the same time, at the very least, ethical consumerism does seem to be very much a critique of certain aspects and ‘negative externalities’ of capitalism. To the extent that externalities of capitalism can be separated from the market system itself we can see ethical consumerism as a type of repudiation of capitalist practices. The neoliberal backdrop against which we believe in and practice ethical consumerism, however, makes this separation nearly impossible.
 
To clarify, ethical consumerism isn’t trying to encourage us to buy or consume less. This is what we would refer to as ‘the ethics of consumption’, and seems to be more in line with an anti-capitalist stance. Instead, ethical consumerism’s main purpose is to make us think about the things we do consume, and treats the buying of goods and services as a moral and political action. But what are consumers doing when engaging with ethical consumerism? Is it simply ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘middle class guilt’? Or is there ideologically something deeper to it?

Ethical consumerism’s main purpose is to make us think about the things we do consume, and treats the buying of goods and services as a moral and political action.


The use of the market here seems to be a reappropriation of the free market, which is seen as an unalloyed good in traditional liberal and converservative thinking, but is so often criticised in more progressive ideologies. This in turn, signals participants not only seeing the economy as a site of social and political struggle, but actively using it in its current form as a front to exert ideological pressure on political, economic, and cultural institutions. Ethical consumerism, then, shows a commitment to markets, which is of course compatible with economic systems other than just capitalism. It also speaks to an affirmation of the power of the consumer and an acknowledgement that that power can and should be used responsibly. Finally, as noted above, it also seems to be a nod towards the collectivity that markets and a globalised society create and a move away from a value-neutral picture of economics.

Ethical consumerism’s main purpose is to make us think about the things we do consume, and treats the buying of goods and services as a moral and political action.
  
When studying capitalism in various disciplines from sociology to media studies, individuals’ motives are often divided into ‘citizen’ where people act outwardly, or in the interest of the common good, and ‘consumer’ where they act privately in their own interests. A prevailing theory of ethical consumerism argues that the movement bridges this gap with people acting as consumers by purchasing goods they want or need while simultaneously expressing outward, citizen commitments to a more just world. From an ideological perspective, however, we might see it less as bridging a gap and instead contesting the constructed binary between public and private, individual and collective, and indeed therefore citizen and consumer.

The problem is that for ethical consumerism, the market becomes the primary social institution of justice, which seems counter-intuitive in that the market is what brought about the injustices in the first place.


In the study of market economics, buyers are motivated by self-interest. This doesn’t seem to be the case with ethical consumers.[1] Instead, they might be motivated by any number of private ethical commitments all of which express some discontentment with the status quo. For example, when it comes to buying FairTrade products, consumers might buy FairTrade because they believe they contribute to development (though the economic gains are dubious). Others might argue that it reduces poverty, and we therefore have a moral obligation to purchase these goods. Yet others still might be less focused on the consequences of Fair Trade and argue that there is a deontological moral imperative to pay a ‘fair price’ for all goods.
 
The problem is that for ethical consumerism, the market becomes the primary social institution of justice, which seems counter-intuitive in that the market is what brought about the injustices in the first place. This means either that a) ethical consumerism could have radical potential because it has found a way to bring justice into the workings of a previously unjust institution or b) ethical consumerism is doomed to fail because it relies on an inherently anti-justice (as well as unjust) institution.
 

The inescapability of consumerism under capitalism

Under capitalism, it’s essentially impossible to avoid being a consumerist. The extent to which we can see ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism, it seems, depends on where we think the onus of responsibility lies and what follows from our ethical consumerism practices.
 
One theory on the motivations behind ethical consumerism says that individuals believe that the onus of responsibility for these moral shortcomings falls on them because of their previous purchases, and it's therefore their responsibility to rectify. On this view, it seems impossible to view ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism because it fails to acknowledge the structural backdrop against which the markets operate, and the causality of the moral failings. Under this version, participants of ethical consumerism are broadly committed to capitalism, but think that it can do better and that ethical consumerism is the best way to nudge the markets in that direction. In other words, they think that the exploitative production processes, environmental damage, racism, sexism, etc. perpetuated by these companies can be separated from capitalism.
 
Alternatively, we might see participants of ethical consumerism as individuals who are unconvinced by capitalism in its entirety, but feel that ethical consumerism is one course of action for improving it, either because it is low-risk activism, they don’t know what else to do, or don’t see any viable alternatives. Ethical consumers who fall into this camp, would seem to think that capitalism is at fault for the unethical products being produced (making it a supply-side, rather than a demand-side issue), but understand that market—not capitalist—mechanisms can be used as a means improving but not rectifying, the system. This conceptualisation relies on a reimagining of markets and their purpose, and being able to disentangle them from the capitalist system in which they exist. Here, we must believe that markets are capable of expressing civic will, rather than simply being an instrument of (profit-seeking) exchange.

It’s hard to view ethical consumerism as a wholescale critique of capitalism, because it works with and within the system, but it seems reasonable to see it as a critique—from any number of ideological standpoints—of the problems that capitalism perpetuates.

The problem seems to be that by continuing to buy, it doesn’t really matter what they believe. The choices on the market take a lot of the individual onus of responsibility away from them. Whether or not ethical consumers are critical of capitalism, the outcome seems to be the same: they use the market to make a statement about what goods are acceptably just and purchase those both as a signal of their own virtue as well as a sign to ‘unjust’ corporations that their products aren’t of an acceptable standard. Market mechanisms should then respond to these cues and slowly move towards a more ethical equilibrium.
 
Fashion brands have started putting out sustainable clothing lines, and supermarkets now offer ranges like ‘plant kitchen’ or products kitemarked with ‘sustainably sourced’ to satiate the concerned consumer. It’s worth noting that these are often sold alongside, rather than in place of, ‘normal’ product lines. What ethical consumerism has done is, in effect, created a separate market (markets) for these conscientious consumers. It exists alongside the ‘regular’ or ‘unethical’ markets. Ethical consumerism has, in effect, created more consumerism. It might drive demand down a bit in these regular markets, but because not everyone is buying from ethical markets, it doesn’t seem likely to drive demand down enough to replace them. Eventually an equilibrium will be reached, unethical capitalist practices will continue to be perpetuated, and a select few who purchase exclusively ethical products can be satisfied that they are not perpetuating any of the problematic externalities of capitalism that they have identified.

I propose that the best way to view ethical consumerism is as a belief that consumers have so that they can bridge a broad commitment to neoliberalism, capitalism, or market economics to more specific ideological environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism, etc.

Indeed, it’s hard to view ethical consumerism as a wholescale critique of capitalism, because it works with and within the system, but it seems reasonable to see it as a critique—from any number of ideological standpoints—of the problems that capitalism perpetuates.
 
I propose that the best way to view ethical consumerism is as a belief that consumers have so that they can bridge a broad commitment to neoliberalism, capitalism, or market economics to more specific ideological environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism, etc. Participants view ethical consumerism as bringing these values into supply chains so that we eventually have a more moral global system of production and consumption. In this way, we might see ethical consumerism as a manifestation of a sort of intersectional capitalism.
 
Ethical consumerism does not (yet) have the power to reconstruct the structure of the market so that its guiding norms foster or indeed reward ethical-consumerist activism. But, in theory, it does seem to have that potential. This is why we can imagine ethical consumerism as a means by which consumers act as citizens, thereby breaking down the public vs private illusion and the individualist vs collectivist mentality that both liberalism and capitalism can perpetuate. More than the ethical consumerism itself, it seems to me that the ideological standpoint(s) from which ethical consumers make their purchases are more telling and what those purchases signify is more important.
 
Instead of seeing themselves as atomistic individuals being swept along by the tides of capitalism, ethical consumers are using the system to try to speak out and acknowledge some of global collective responsibility.

 

This is an edited version of this article, first published in the Ideology Theory Practice blog.

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