What does ‘ethical consumption’ mean?

Ethical Consumption by Tania Lewis (First published in P. James & N. Soguk (eds) (2012) Annual Review 2012: Global Cities. Global Cities Research Institute (RMIT University): Carlton, pp. 67-71).

An updated and expanded version of this essay is forthcoming in Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice edited by R. Horne, J. Fien, Beau B. Beza and Anitra Nelson by Routledge, London.

This essay considers what we mean by the term ‘ethical consumption’, offers the context for the rise of the associated movement, discusses ethical consumer practices, and analyses the political limits and potential of ethical consumption.

What does ‘ethical consumption’ mean?

During the past couple of decades, the concept of ethical consumption has gained increasing prominence in wealthy capitalist nations around the world (Lewis & Potter 2011), more recently attaining mainstream appeal. A 2009 issue of Time magazine ran with the banner ‘The rise of the ethical consumer’ and featured ‘The responsibility revolution’ article reporting that, in their poll of 1003 Americans, ‘[n]early 40% said they purchased a product in 2009 because they liked the social or political values of the company that produced it’ (Stengle 2009, p. 24). No longer purely associated with fringe politics or hippie lifestyles, terms such as ‘responsible’ and ‘conscience consumption’, are increasingly entering into the everyday language and practices of so-called ‘ordinary’ consumers. Whether through injunctions to buy ‘guilt-free’ Fair Trade chocolate, to minimize the consumption of energy and water on behalf of the planet, or to recycle or swap goods as a means of reducing consumption overall, mainstream consumer choice is increasingly marked by questions of ‘care, solidarity and collective concern’ (Barnett et al. 2005a, p. 45).

As both Littler (2011) and Humphery (2011) have noted, however, the term ‘ethical consumption’ does not refer to a clearly defined set of practices, but rather has become a convenient catch-all phrase for a range of tendencies within contemporary consumer economies. In popular and market-based usage, ethical consumption has become an umbrella term covering a wide range of concerns from animal welfare, labour standards and human rights to questions of health and wellbeing and environmental and community sustainability.

This broadly ethical turn, of course, is not necessarily marked by a coherent set of shared politics or values; nor have most ethical products made significant inroads into the capitalist marketplace. Practices that might be labelled as forms of ethical consumption range widely. On the one hand, certain modes of ‘ethical’ and ‘green’ purchasing, such as those advocated by popular self-help books, like Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style (Matheson 2008), can be seen to operate primarily within the logics of consumer culture in its drive to forge and colonize ever new and untapped markets. On the other hand, the ethical turn in consumer culture has also legitimated more radical forms of intervention into free market capitalism. The prime example is the Fair Trade Federation, which seeks to challenge a purely individualist, consumer-driven approach by linking the shopping practices of consumers from the global North to a broader ‘global fair trade movement’ and to the political and economic rights of producers in the South.

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 life and lifestyle practices. This shift has seen political consumerism no longer limited to the classical sphere of the polis, as defined in contrast to the oikos or household, but broadened to the everyday lives and lifestyles of ‘ordinary’ consumers.

Contextualising the ethical turn

While this reconfiguration of consumption in terms of personal and lifestyle politics is a reasonably recent phenomenon, which can be linked to a range of longer-term struggles around consumer politics. As Humphery (2011) argues, the mass market has long been the subject of political and cultural critique by Marxist, liberal and conservative critics alike. Likewise, consumer culture has been marked by active political struggles since its beginnings, with early consumer initiatives including the US White Label Campaign of 1899, in which activists attached positive ‘white’ labels to the products of factories with good working conditions.

Negative modes of campaigning such as boycotts also emerged in the nineteenth century and continued through into the twentieth, with ‘Don’t buy where you can’t work’ campaigns for black civil rights impacting on the hiring practices of firms like Woolworths in the USA during the 1920s through to the 1940s. As Naomi Klein (2000, p. 336) points out, one of the more recent boycotts and the first case of global brand-based activism was the targeting of Nestlé (1974–84) by various consumer, church and action groups in response to their marketing of infant formula in Africa and Asia. As a highly visible corporation promoted along the lines of ‘family values’, what the Nestlé case signaled was the shift towards a different kind of political activism around consumerism.

One of the central arguments Klein (2000) makes in her book, No Logo, is that the mainstreaming of political consumerism today is integrally connected to the centrality of brand culture. While contemporary branding has enabled corporations to seamlessly integrate themselves into spheres of life that were once relatively free of market logics, as Klein argues, the flip side of brand strategies that position corporations as good citizens is that they are increasingly being held to account for their social responsibilities to customers and the community at large. Thus the culturally and socially immanent nature of the brand today is at once both the strength and the Achilles heel of the contemporary corporation.

Another important context for the ethical turn in mainstream consumer markets has been the increased focus within popular media culture on the impacts and risks of capitalist modernity, particularly in relation to the environment (Lewis 2008). The global success and impact of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), alongside youth-oriented ‘green’ entertainment spectacles such as Live Earth, has seen a growing coverage of green issues by popular media. Closely linked and overlapping with environmental critiques of modern living, a range of critical commentaries on materialism and ‘affluenza’ in wealthy developed nations have made their presence felt in the mainstream cultural landscape (De Graaf et al. 2005) — from media interest in anti-consumerist activism around corporate practices, particularly the targeting of major transnational corporations like Nike and McDonald’s, to popular cultural critiques of overconsumption, such as the film Super Size Me (2004).

Ethical consumption in practice

The rise of ethical consumption thus connects to a broader popular critique focused on a range of concerns around environmentalism, anti-materialism, and unsustainable lifestyles. Despite the growing popular currency of the concept, there have been relatively few large-scale academic studies of ethical consumption though, perhaps not surprisingly, a number of large national and international surveys have been undertaken in the field of marketing. For instance, a poll by Global Market Insite (GMI 2005) across 17 countries, including the USA, Australia, Japan, China, India and various European countries, found that 54 per cent of online consumers would be prepared to pay more for organic, environmentally friendly, or Fair Trade products.

Various in-depth qualitative studies have also begun to emerge on specific aspects of ethical consumption, including Fair Trade products, food and fashion (Gibson & Stanes 2011; Curran 2009; Fridell 2007; Scrase 2011; Figueroa & Waitt 2011; Varul 2009) while a number of geographers have conducted research on commodity ‘chains’ or ‘networks’, situating consumption globally and articulating ethical consumption within the politics of production, and marketing and retail practices and policies. In terms of broader studies of ethical consumption, Swedish political scientist Michele Micheletti has conducted extensive research on ‘virtuous’ shopping as a form of political participation in Scandinavia (Micheletti 2003, Micheletti & Follesdal 2007, Micheletti & Stolle 2007), while consumption studies scholar Kim Humphery (1998; 2010) has undertaken in-depth research on anti-consumerist practices in Australian households and elsewhere. The largest empirical study on ethical consumption to date in the UK has been conducted by a team of British cultural geographers led by Clive Barnett (Barnett et al. 2005b). Focusing on the city of Bristol, they used case studies, focus groups, in-depth interviews and discourse analysis of promotional material to look at the way in which ordinary people deal with the complexities and dilemmas of everyday consumption.

My recent research with colleague Dr Rowan Wilken on household curbside ‘waste’ reuse likewise suggests complexities in everyday decision-making and habitual practices around household consumption, and the growing ‘ethicalization’ of everyday personal conduct around consumption and lifestyle ‘choices’. The curbside placement and reuse of ‘hard rubbish’ items, such as furniture, is common practice in many Australian cities, with recent surveys of Melbourne households indicating that 35–40 per cent of respondents had gleaned items from hard rubbish for household reuse (Lane et al. 2009). This is a practice that has become more regulated and formalized as part of council strategies for waste management and sustainability, with some councils holding designated collection weeks. In our in-depth video-based study of 15 socio-economically diverse Melbourne households, we documented and analyzed informal household practices and economies around thrift and reuse. Most of the householders in our study were active gleaners of hard rubbish and often purchased much of their furniture and clothing from ‘alternative’ shopping spaces such as thrift and ‘opportunity’ shops, and garage sales.

While questions of thrift often arose, most participants’ motivations were far from purely economic or utilitarian but were characterized by a complex range of interests. Many participants saw their participation in hard rubbish practices as a form of political or ethical consumption, often linking their practices to a broader interest in self-sufficiency, anti-consumerism, environmentalism and waste minimization, as well as to issues of social justice. However, in speaking of ‘politics’ here, people’s ethical practices were often tied to personal and lifestyle issues involving networks of reciprocal sharing and caring with local community and familial and friendship groups. Furthermore, the drive to consume differently and reuse material items, rather than purchase new commodities, was frequently tied to questions of pleasure and aesthetics, people often describing the ‘thrill’ of ‘discovering’ sought-after items on the curbside and taking them home. Here, many of our participants invoked a kind of romantic ethic of consumption in their discussion of gleaned goods — talking of the authenticity and enchantment associated with older material objects and their histories of ownership, in contrast to the perceived alienation of purchasing new commodities.

In our study, the embedded nature of consumer practices in people’s everyday lives and their connection to a range of values and habits meant that, despite ethical and political motivations, such practices were often marked by complexity and contradiction. A number of participants, particularly those with children, discussed the significant time and labour involved in consuming ethically. They reported purchasing new items when doing so was quicker and easier. Householders with homes furnished largely with second-hand and gleaned items, then, would often point guiltily to their one Ikea purchase as a highly conspicuous symbol of time-pressured lives and the convenience of one-stop shopping.

The politics of consuming ethically: possibilities and limitations

Such paradoxical practices point to the gap between people’s professed values and beliefs and the realities of their everyday life routines and habits. They also suggest the limitations on placing too much emphasis on individual ethical purchases as a panacea for over-consumption. As numerous critics have pointed out, one of the central problems is that a focus on ethical consumption at a solely personalized level tends to displace responsibility from governments and corporations to individuals while effacing the political and economic determinants that structure people’s daily lifestyle ‘choices’. In this context, making lifestyle choices more ethical can be seen to reinforce a ‘doctrine of personal responsibility’ (Miller 2007, p. 120), an ethos that fits well with dominant neoliberal trends towards devolved and deregulated governance and trade, in which civic responsibility is framed in terms of individual choice, ‘self-realization’ and the ‘stakeholder society’ (Pringle & Thompson 1999, p. 267), at the expense of state care and conventional understandings of civic participation and citizenship. Others have pointed to the socio-economic dimensions of ethical consumption and the need to recognize that not all consumers have access to the symbolic and economic resources required to shop virtuously. Conscience consumption, such as buying organic food and/or Fair Trade products, is increasingly associated with social distinction, and expensive green products have acquired a degree of social cache amongst a growing urban class of ‘bourgeois bohemians’ (Littler 2009).

Finally, and most crucially, critics point to the limitations of a politics defined by and through the logics of the market. For instance, the UK environmental commentator George Monbiot (2007) has little time for what he sees as the superficial platitudes of ethical consumption which, to his mind, encourages people to continue consuming while simply replacing less ‘caring’ products with others. Advocacy of conscience consumption thus raises fundamental questions about the ethical capacities of market-driven societies and whether it is possible to develop a sustainable consumer culture.

Nevertheless, where ethical consumption becomes potentially much more interesting and challenging as a cultural force is not through its ability to challenge market culture but the questions it poses more broadly around ways of living and the fashioning of new ethico-political realities. As such, I would suggest that our obligation to consume ethically should not be glossed over as a mere marketing ploy or status trend for the progressive middle classes. Instead, it asks to be approached through a broader political frame linked to key questions around the ongoing sustainability of existing social and economic structures in the global North. Can we live ‘the good life’ within a narrowly materialist culture? As Joel Bakan (2004, p. 31) puts it, can capitalism have a conscience? What the practices and politics of ethical consumption, at its most radical, can engender is a questioning and a rethinking of the ‘good life’ and of the logics of consumer culture itself.


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