From ‘guilt free’ Fair Trade chocolate to non-Sweat fashion and palm oil free products, during the past decade the notion of ‘ethical consumption’ has gained increasing prominence in wealthy capitalist nations around the world as a critical concept, market category and diverse set of everyday practices.
Though the term may have entered into mainstream parlance in recent years, ‘ethical consumption’ doesn’t refer to a clearly defined set of practices but rather can be seen as a convenient catch-all expression for a range of tendencies within contemporary consumer economies. The phrase potentially embraces a myriad of concerns in relation to commodity production and provenance, from animal welfare, labour standards, Fair Trade and human rights to health and wellbeing, and environmental and community sustainability. It also suggests an equally wide range of stances toward consumer culture.
If the excessive consumption of commodities is seen as a major contributing factor to anthropogenic climate change, then the very notion that one can shop or consume one’s way to a better or greener world would seem to fundamentally contradict forms of sustainability citizenship.
However if we understand the ethical turn as opening the way to a more fundamental critique of consumption, not only in terms of commodity capitalism but in terms of the carbon-intensive lifestyles and consumption practices associated with late modernity more broadly then sustainability citizenship might usefully draw some lessons from the rise of ethical consumption.
If the field of ethical consumption is diverse in terms of the concerns it encompasses, one point of commonality is the emphasis placed on the politicization of everyday lifestyle practices, particularly in relation to sustainability.