Global Policy Forum

The Costs of Ethical Consuming

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In this op-ed piece, Andrew Szasz discusses the limits of ethical consumption. Ethical consumption is often presented as the ultimate solution to the gravest ethical and environmental concerns of our times. If each individual would make conscious choices regarding the products they purchase, so the argument goes, change on the individual level would certainly lead to change on the macro level. According to Szasz, however, ethical consumption by itself is not enough to face the environmental, economic and political crisis the world is currently facing. A change in individual consumption habits ought to be only one of the many facets of true civic engagement, not a substitute for it. Unfortunately, rather than inspiring additional action, ethical consumption often proves to silence the internal voice urging “ethical consumers” to do more.    

By Andrew Szasz

Boston Review

November 2011

Should we choose to act ethically, mindfully, when the opportunity arises? Absolutely. Will such acts have societal and political impact? Perhaps. In the right context, under the right conditions.

If ethical consuming is to become a real force for environmental protection, two conditions must be met. First, ethical consuming has to become a mass phenomenon; the sum of many individual decisions sends a market signal strong enough to encourage manufacturers to change what they produce and/or how they produce it. Second, individual acts of ethical consuming need to be experienced by the consumer as only one facet of engagement with environmental issues, not as a substitute for—and possibly the end of—a more protracted engagement.

The first condition can be further broken down into three more specific components: the consumer must have trustworthy information; the ethical alternative must be competitive in terms of price and quality (effective, attractive, easy to use); and the ethical commodity must address issues that are important to large numbers of consumers.

Trust is undermined by pervasive false, or overstated, green claims—greenwashing. Dara O’Rourke’s proposal thus has its greatest potential here: providing immediate, trustworthy information when purchasing decisions are made.

The need for ethical products to be competitive in terms of quality and utility has increasingly been met. Think of hybrid cars today compared to the first Honda Insight or the first Toyota Prius. Here the market has behaved as it is supposed to, improving products as it strives to give consumers what they want.

Ethical consumption is likely to silence the internal voice that urges us to do more.

After that things get more problematic. Ethical goods typically cost more, sometimes far more, than their conventional counterparts. Consider the price of organic meat, or compare the price of a hybrid with that of a conventional car. The premium on alternative products is a huge issue, a make-or-break issue, especially in down economic times. Income inequality in the United States has been rising for several decades. Median household income fell during the recession and has continued to fall in the “recovery.” Officially unemployment is still above 9 percent, and 46 million Americans live below the poverty line.

Opinion polls show that Americans say they like a clean environment, in some very general, abstract sense, but when they are asked to rank the relative importance of issues, environmental preservation consistently comes in near or at the bottom, far below jobs, the economy, crime, terrorism, education, and drugs.

If the price gap and public opinion remain unchanged, ethical consuming will remain a niche phenomenon, restricted to a small group of Americans, no matter how good the information available on smart phones. Ethical consuming will continue to be a viable choice only for those who are already deeply committed and have the disposable income to afford it.

Ethical consuming could have substantial societal impact in one other way, though: if it motivated the consumer to become more engaged, more active politically. It seems obvious that if one is to choose the ethical alternative, if one is to shop consistently on the basis of ethical choices, one already has a non-trivial commitment to whatever cause the ethical product addresses: saving dolphins, say, or humane treatment of farm animals. But does buying the ethical product then deepen commitment and motivate further action? Or does it lead instead to a kind of self-satisfaction, a feeling that by buying ethically one has done well and that may be enough?

We know little about what one might call the aftermath of the ethical choice. Given how easy it is to shop, compared to how hard it is to take the time to participate in a movement, I would argue that ethical consuming is more likely to lead to a calming of concern, to a sense of “at least I have done something.” Rather than inspiring additional action, ethical consumption is more likely to silence the internal voice that urges us to do more.

If climate scientists are right, and I believe they are, we don’t have much time. There is urgent need for a movement powerful enough to get markets and governments to act soon on environmental issues. Ethical consuming is a fine thing to advocate and a fine thing for each of us to do, but it is misleading to think that it will make a substantial contribution to the kind of mass activism we will need if we, as a nation and as a global society, are to mount an effective campaign to tackle the crisis of our time.


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