Ethical Consumers are people who believe that we are slowly and inexorably driving business and society to be more responsible one purchase at a time. For decades, I’ve bought into this belief system, right down to eating vegetarian, buying organic food, eschewing corporate fashion, and writing books about conscious consumption. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood engineered for Ethical Consumers, dotted with non-toxic nail salons, Fair Trade baby clothes stores, and organic wine shops. Being an Ethical Consumer is a part of my everyday reality, my work, and my identity—or at least it was.
One could explain a decision to give up being an ethical consumer because of a lack of emotional energy (eco anxiety is a terrible burden for many) or money to shop ethically during the pandemic. Those things could be true for many, but the turning point for me to change from being an ethical consumer to ethical activist was reading up about the #PayUp campaign, a mass movement of citizens and garment workers that formed in March to pressure huge apparel chains, including Gap, to pay their garment workers for $40 billion worth of orders manufactured prior to the pandemic. (Gap and 20 other companies have since agreed to pay.)
What has decades of Ethical Consumerism done to protect these workers and raise their wages? Nothing. Ethical Consumption hasn't and couldn’t protect Black and brown people from dying and getting critically ill in far higher percentages than white people during the pandemic. It hasn’t put a dent in climate change or plastic pollution. It couldn’t even protect retail workers, even those employed in “ethical” chain stores had to keep working as the virus spread often because they don’t earn enough money to stay home.
The pandemic has swept away so many illusions. Our societal problems, from the climate crisis and systemic racism to economic inequality, run so deep and down to the bone that we’ve had no choice but to face them.
While Consumer Activists went to great lengths to understand how products were made and sold and how corporations function, this process of knowing was not in service of choosing better products (à la the Pollan era of privatized enlightened consumption)—it was for the explicit purpose of holding corporations and government accountable. “Consumer reforms cannot be separated from corporate reforms: they are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Nader in The Consumer and Corporate Accountability, a 1973 anthology of the movement’s mid-career victories.
What’s more, while today’s Ethical Consumers debate whether it’s appropriate to call humans “consumers” instead of “citizens,” Consumer Activists saw the two terms as compatible, as being an informed consumer was an exercise in good citizenship. In fact, the goal of the consumer movement was always to change society’s rules so the entire public benefited. That meant having a racist policy overturned, a monopoly busted, a dangerous product regulated or banned. “Once the zest and skill for acquiring hard to get information is developed, the very process of seeking generates an understanding of citizen rights, remedies, and participation and decisions that affect everyone,” wrote Nader.
Elizabeth L. Cline goes on to say that "The most striking difference between yesterday’s consumer activist and today’s ethical consumer is the matter of responsibility. Who or what is to blame for social problems, and who has the power to solve them? Consumer Activists believed that companies selling goods and services have a responsibility to their customers, to their workers, and to the government agencies which regulate them.” Companies have a responsibility to society. And when companies endanger us or the environment, it’s their fault, not ours as shoppers. They understood that the market must be tamed with democracy, and rules and guardrails, or it would always exploit.
"The Ethical Consumer, by contrast, somehow believes that we personally cause social problems by sending market cues that we want unethical and unsustainable products. If we follow our own beliefs to their logical conclusion, that means problems as serious as the climate crisis, racist inequality, union busting, food deserts, and sweatshop wages are somehow the result of not shopping in the right stores."
The most self-evident argument is that ethical consumerism is grossly inadequate and unequal response to our most pressing problems such as the climate crisis, systemic racism, sweatshop wages, growing ineqaulity and much else. In addition, these are in a large part because of the power within corporations. Fashion is a perfect example: What drives sweatshops is not a consumer demand for sweatshops. It is a lack of proper labor laws to protect garment workers and intense economic concentration that incentivizes the industry to drive down wages. The best solution to this problem is to nurture our democracy and return to the progressive and strong mass movements of the past that provide a counterweight to the market’s crushing power.
There are examples where ethical consumption makes a tangible difference. Electing to not overconsume or choosing to buy a product made by workers earning living wages come to mind. One might argue that avoiding a plastic cup or straw matters.
But where we get outselves into trouble is in viewing shopping as a moral act and viewing shoping at a cheap chainstore that has a poor business practical as an immor one. Consumption is an economic imperative, and it is fundamentally determined by our income. Unless we believe "that rich people, who can afford more ethical products, are somehow more ethical than the rest of us, we must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy. In fact, I now believe that the only ethical approach to consumption (if such a thing exists) is to make the cheapest available products as responsibly as possible, as was recently argued in The Guardian, which means overhauling the big companies that make most of the stuff that most people buy."