What is ethical consumption and what needs to be studied?

Animal Rights — Anti-Sweatshop — Consumer Activism – Environmentally Friendly — Fair Trade — Food Security — Frugavore — Locavore — low Carbon Miles — Green Politics – Conscious Consumption — No Child Labour — No GM (genetic modification) — No Palm Oil — Organic — Planet Friendly — Reusable, Renewable & Recyclable — Say No To Plastic Bags — Slow food — Sustainability — Vegetarian/Vegan

There is certainly no shortage of terms to choose from when it comes to thinking about the potential consequences of our consumption decisions. As a very general term, ‘ethical consumption’ describes an approach to the material world and to commodity culture that takes into account many of the above issues—and more. While advocates for each of these various concerns have their own specific agendas, they are all asking us in one way or another to consider the broader implications of our consumption practices. They are asking us to acknowledge the possible environmental, social, personal and moral impact of the goods and services we, eat, wear, use, and throw away.

While this kind of take on consumption is not new—and has a long history—in recent years the notion of ethical consumption appears to have gained traction in public consciousness, and is increasingly common to the way that commodity culture itself now addresses us as ‘consumers’. In other words, there is an increasingly routine expectation that all of us should have at least some concern about whether our consumption choices and habits are ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘right’, ‘fair’, ‘responsible’ or ‘principled’.

At the very least, it is now difficult for us to ignore the flow of public information about the impact our consumption might be having on others and on the earth. In this sense, talking and thinking about the ethics of consumption is no longer the domain of the stereotypical radical on the fringes of society, critiquing ‘the system’ from the margins. Instead, ethical matters have become central to commodity culture. In fact, you could say that the language of ethical consumption has never been more obvious. Whether it’s TV chefs touting the virtues of ‘local produce’, café owners announcing the provenance of their Fair Trade coffee beans, supermarkets promoting free range meat, or fashion labels signing up to ‘no sweatshop’ agreements, matters of ethical concern are becoming increasingly prominent in everyday life. And all this is squarely focused on what we consume.

It’s also squarely focused on us as individuals. We are, it seems, being asked to take greater personal responsibility for our participation in consumer economies. We are expected to know more and more about ‘stuff’; about where a commodity comes from, under what conditions it was made, how it was sold to us, and how it travelled to us from its point of origin. When we’re finished using a commodity, we’re also partly responsible for what becomes of it as waste. A politics of ethical consumption—and corporate and government discourses of sustainability—insists that we are connected to all of these elements of a commodity’s life cycle.

In the process, we are in fact bombarded by an odd mix of messages. In contemporary Australia, as in other nations, we are told to consume as much as we can for the health of the economy but we are told at the very same time to consume ‘consciously’ for the health of the environment. We are encouraged to expect an abundance of cheap products, but reminded of the often appalling conditions under which these are made. We are told to express ourselves through the goods we buy, but chastised for valuing ‘things’ too much. Such is the contradictory story of consumption in contemporary global capitalism. Or so it seems…

In this project we are curious about what this ‘ethical turn’ really means beyond the domain of marketing slogans, media hype and consumer trend data; and are particularly interested in its implications in the longer term. Consumer capitalism has an uncanny way of incorporating marginal concerns into its orbit, and diluting genuine radical thinking in the process of mainstreaming. We thus have lots of questions about the efficacy of ‘ethical consumption’ discourse as it becomes more widespread. In this sense, we want to interrogate what is happening at this moment in time, as ethical consumption seemingly ‘goes mainstream’.

This also means interrogating a radical politics of consumption. It means not simply advocating for ethical and sustainable ways of consuming, and for ethical products, shops and markets (although we certainly support these initiatives), but asking what these interventions can actually do to bring about lasting changes in how consumption is practiced.

So in this project, we want to understand better the historical and contemporary context of ethical consumption. We want to ask people involved in the ‘ethical marketplace’ about what they are doing right now to change people’s consuming habits and business practices. We want to find out more about how people make choices in relation to so-called ethical products and services. We want to ask retailers and producers what it is that makes their products ‘ethical’ in ways that conventional commodities are not. We want to analyse some of the talk around the ethics of consuming in a world of overconsumption. And we want, above all, to ask if a meaningful politics of change can actually be built around individual consumption decisions. If not, then we want to identify what ethical consumption might look like beyond the individual purchase.