by Sabrina Martin
The Covid crisis has, by and large, been a positive time for ethical consumerism. Numerous people have used lockdown as an impetus to review their purchasing habits and make more conscious decisions about what and where they buy. 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 that Covid has ushered in a new era of ethical consumerism for at least the next decade.
Ethical consumerism has been around, in some form, since the early days of capitalism, with activist producers and abolitionists stamping ‘not made by slaves’ on various consumer goods to signify they were made ethically with free labour. Around the turn of the 20th century, it evolved into a consumer protection movement calling for product standards to be better regulated. Public regulation of goods and production standards remained at the forefront of what it meant to consume something ethically until the late 1980s and, in the UK, led to the passage of the Consumer Protection Act. The rise of our current version of ethical consumerism dates to approximately 1989 and the establishment of Ethical Consumer Magazine, which helps readers to “Discover the truth behind the products we buy and the companies we buy them from” and is still in publication today.
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 the market is an effective tool for our activism.
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. These criticisms are the subject of a later blog. 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 asking what the ideological underpinnings of the movement are, and to what extent ethical consumerism is or can be seen as a critique of capitalism.
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’ (see Crocker and Linden 1998), 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’? Figures seem to back this up: statistics commonly cite that the majority of people report that they are willing to buy ethical brands, but only about 26% actually do so. Lending more credence to this idea, another study shows that people are substantially more likely to participate in sustainable consumption if someone else is reported having done it first. Or is there ideologically something deeper to it?
Ethical consumer options exist in most markets: from FairTrade and Rainforest Alliance foods and other consumable goods, to sustainable fashion, even to finances and banking and investing in the covid vaccine. In addition to being able to buy ‘ethically’ for your chosen product or service, you can also find brands in almost every market to match your pet cause or ideology: animal rights, shattering the glass ceiling, environmentalism, human rights, etc.
For this reason, coupled with its use of the market to coordinate its outcomes, ethical consumerism is by no means a unified ideology or movement. As an ideology it seems to be ‘thin-centered’ in that it has a singular central theme, which seems to be a broad commitment to avoiding or rectifying some of the ails of capitalism. (Indeed, its supposed thinness is what seems to make it compatible with other ideologies like environmentalism and feminism.) As an activist movement it consists of a collection of consumer activists, kitemarking labels, and companies trying to make capitalism more palatable for buyers and suppliers, and the laborers in between. What’s important to note here is the use of the market as an activist platform and the use of a dollar as a mechanism of free speech.
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. Ultimately, then, it seems that ethical consumerism may not be quite as ‘thin’ as it originally appears, and there may be a thicker set of concepts lurking within it. It 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.
Further complicating the conceptualisation of ethical consumerism, it bucks trends in several established fields of study. Activism is usually portrayed as a social movement and therefore a collectivist project, making the individual purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the world of activism; markets are usually studied (at least in modern-economics) as value-neutral, making the morally targeted purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the observance of markets. Seeing the economy as value-laden was commonplace in classical economics, but largely went out of fashion alongside the rise of the predominance of liberalism (for an interesting analysis of the history of linkage, see Machan 1995). There is, however, a recent trend in economics contesting the value-neutrality of markets and economics trying to introduce alternative norms into the economy, for example, Raworth’s doughnut model of the economy, Mazzucato’s Mission Economy, and the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission. While these are centered on the top-down policy or supply-side of the economy, like ethical consumerism, they show a tendency towards a belief in a moralised economy.
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 (see Schudson 2007). From an ideological perspective, however, we might see less as bridging a gap and instead contesting the constructed binary between public and private, individual and collective, and indeed therefore citizen and consumer.
In the study of market economics, buyers are motivated by self-interest. This doesn’t seem to be the case with ethical consumers. 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.
Under ethical consumerism, these individual moral commitments don’t actually matter; people don’t have to agree on ideologies to pursue their activism collectively or even hold internal consistent comprehensive moral positions. Instead, the invisible hand of the market takes care of the coordination of the activism and the ideology. It’s almost like seeing Rawlsian overlapping consensus being played out in the real world: individuals hold a plurality of moral commitments and the market coordinates and executes them. The problem is that the market is therefore 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.
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.
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.
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.
The market itself does not yet actively reward ethical consumerism. Indeed, ethical consumers willingly pay a premium. But the market-based reward is not the point; instead it’s societal betterment that matters. 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.
As any good economics student knows, however, the consumer (demand) side is only half of the story. Perhaps ethical consumerism is a radical instrument for change. But in order for the goals of ethical consumerism to be met, and for the market to truly be a meaningful tool of activism, both the supply-side conditions and the policy will have to be put in place, as well.
Other pieces in this series will include, a history of ethical consumerism, critiques of ethical consumerism, and a discussion of ethical consumerism’s varying ideological compatibility with some of the causes it purports to support.
 Note that while the markets for ‘ethical’ and ‘non-ethical’ goods are often treated separately in the literature, the goal for ethical consumerism is for ethical products to replace non-ethical ones in terms of demand. The degree to which we have separate markets seems to depend on the industry in which the ethical goods and services are being offered. Despite the separation of markets, the consumers are likely the same people. So instead of seeing ethical consumers and markets as separate entities, it seems more accurate to see them as counter-hegemonic tendencies within the bigger scheme of the global economy.