(33) Going Beyond Ethical Consumerism

Listen to the episode HERE.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

REVIEWS: I wanted to start of the episode by reading out my latest reviews for the podcast. Jay from Australia says “Thanks for talking about all things for all people”. Victoria from the UK says “this is a great podcast. Diverse topics and interesting guests.” Thank you both for the reviews, I’m so touched when people tell me that they love what I talk about and it resonates with them. That’s exactly why I want Mind Full of Everything to achieve so thank you both so much for giving the feedback!

INTRO: Hello deep thinkers, this is your host Agrita, and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast that questions the deeper and bigger things in life, from intersectional environmentalism to self-development and everything else in between. Today I talk about ethical consumerism and the rise of the practice, as we have collectively become hyper aware of our negative impacts on the environment. Whilst ethical consumerism helps to raise awareness of the ethical and environmental implications of the production of goods and services, it’s only the first step to demanding systemic change in production lines to ensure that people and the environment are always put way before profitable gain. 

I would say from the day I decided to go vegan, my eco-anxiety peaked. I was constantly looking for ways I could transform my personal life to be waste-free, plastic free as possible. You can clearly see that with my initial episodes for the podcast; for my climate change series, I made them during the peak of my anxiety where I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to become a more environmentally friendly person, so a better version of myself. Just recently I realised that since 2019, the end of 2019, my eco-anxiety has dropped, especially during the pandemic where the entire attention was lockdown, self-isolation, care for those are vulnerable and the infected, all very important of course. Then we started learning that many places of nature were healing because of the sudden drop in emission-intensive human activities so my eco anxiety dropped even more. 

Now that we’ve gone through one lockdown, and I’ve begun to talk more about environmentalism in my podcast again, I think the eco-anxiety is starting to creep up again. I have started following more activism, specifically environmental activism and environmental justice, accounts so I get to learn a lot and also question my own beliefs, either improve them or consolidate them further. So, since my Instagram feed is full of these activism accounts, I came across a post made by Fashion Revolution, and they shared an article by Elizabeth Cline, which I put on my website, and I’ve based this episode from the articles, so in response to the article. That post was basically discussing her journey from being an ethical consumer to a consumer activist and why we should all denounce ethical consumerism entirely. So, my initial reaction to the post was “wow, I’m learning so many different things”. I posted it on my personal [Instagram] account, my story, and I was really excited to learn about this new thing, to learn a bit more about what the article was talking about. But then when I revisited that post literally a few minutes later, I was like “well, I don’t really agree what is being discussed here” and then I looked at the comments and realised that I was not the only one that thought like that. 

So, what exactly is ethical consumerism? It’s a type of political activism grounded in making purchases of goods produced ethically and sustainably. So, putting worker rights and environmental protection over profits. The ideology calls for essentially bridging a gap between production and the final product and supporting companies that invest resources into protecting worker rights and minimising their impact on the environment to manufacture their goods or services. 

Ethical consumerism has skyrocketed in the past few years, with Fair Trade and energy saving light bulbs being major examples of ethical consumerism in our personal lives. When we are purchasing products, for example, we look for the Fair Trade logo for products like fruit and coffee that are grown in developing regions. In the UK, leading supermarkets have switched their entire range of coffee to Fair Trade. You’ve seen a ban on halogen bulbs; it started out in 2009 and in 2018 the EU fully banned halogen light bulbs, including for manufacturing purposes, and LEDs are set to take over and they practically have, even though they are more expensive initially. In 1999, the total size of the ethical consumer market in the UK was £11.2 billion, in 2018, it reached to £41.1 billion, so nearly four times what it was in 1999. This is mainly for ethical food items, so in 2018, the market for ethical food was £12 billion, compared to £1 billion in 1999, and this includes things like organic, Fair Trade, vegetarian, vegan, plant-based foods. We’ve also seen a massive increase in the market for ethical home products. So in 1999, the market was £1 billion and it has now increased to £10 billion in 2018 for energy efficient appliances, energy efficient boilers, ethical cleaning products, green electricity and within that same time, household expenditure has only grown by 2%. Yet the ethical consumer market for home products has increased massively, so it’s not that we are buying more, it’s just that we’re buying more consciously

But around the same time as ethical consumerism was increasing, unethical practices like fast fashion, which was started by Zara who released the first fast fashion business model, soared and it’s still very popular. Many people are constantly buying from fast fashion, whether it be the public or celebrities, although I do agree, and I’m very happy, that many people have become very conscious about reducing their consumption of fast fashion items. 

Ethical consumerism is very broad. There are many different types of ethical consumerism and how consumers practice the belief. These types have been nicely summarised by Waheed Hussain, you can find the paper on my website. So, the first type of ethical consumerism, which is most common type, is social change ethical consumerism, where the consumer buys ethical goods and services with the intention that competitors will feel compelled to carry out similar ethical and environmentally friendly practices. So, this consumer either engages in negative ethical consumerism, for example boycotts, or positive ethical consumerism, for example, buycotts. This type of consumer is trying to use their purchases to induce behavioural changes in others, seeing their purchase as an incentive to rivals as well as the company itself. 

The next type is clean hands ethical consumerism, so this consumer avoids the products and services that don’t adopt ethical, unsustainable practices, to ensure that they are not associated with the production of that commodity, but they don’t necessarily have the intention to change the production process. Then you have expressive ethical consumerism, so it’s similar to clean hands but the consumer in this case expresses their disapproval of unethical products and services by engaging in more socially just practices, but this doesn’t contribute to changing production models to make them more ethical and environmentally friendly. 

And the last type is unmediated ethical consumerism, so the consumer purchases goods and services to ensure that their personal practices are ethical and sustainable as possible, not so others can follow suit, whether it’s individuals, individual consumers or companies. I would say, for myself, I easy fit into the first type, social change ethical consumer, and that I engage in both negative and positive ethical consumerism. So, I try my best to boycott companies that are infamous for exploitation of workers of the environment, while supporting companies whose long-term goals fit in line with my purpose. For example, I refrain from purchasing at places like Boohoo or PrettyLittleThing, and buy, when I really need to or want to, from places like Nobody’s Child or clothes from New Look’s kinder range. So, I try to pay close attention to the intersections of the environment and work hard and human rights. I will never get it entirely right, nobody will, but I try to be as ethical and sustainable as I can about my consumption. 

But that’s the question, why can’t we be entirely ethical or unsustainable, or at least be near to fully being ethical and sustainable? We all produce waste that can’t be avoided, but why is it that we’ve made urban systems so wasteful,beyond the minimum threshold of waste? Why is it that we’ve made our system so flawed that it’s near impossible to engage in production of goods and services that exploits at least one individual during production, and in reality, at least, thousands of people, including the environment. Why is it that we need to tell ourselves to choose the lesser of two evils when practicing our basic right as consumers, demanding that goods and services we use are produced ethically and unsustainably? Why is it that we have to compromise? And when you begin to ask these questions, we begin to ask the question of what even is the point of engaging in ethical consumerism, no matter what form it is, when in the end, change is just extremely slow, vulnerable populations are continuing to suffer and environmental issues are continuing to worsen? And if you are asking that question, it must mean that somewhere along the line, ethical consumerism has gone completely wrong. 

Whether it’s the way it’s being presented by companies and the corporate environment, or the ways in which it’s adopted by consumers, the core value of this belief system, of ethical consumerism, is shopping the way into a socially just and sustainable market, and that every purchase will help in building a sustainable and ethical production framework and that’s the exact problem with it. Because just like how voting has never really guaranteed reformation of political, social structures, how can we assume that boycotting a company or buying only from ethical companies will result in a better production framework [overall]? 

The truth is, unfortunately, the products we consume and the services we use are connected to many processes, industries, companies, individuals. So, the ending product that we see, the final service that we see, that perhaps is promoted marketed as sustainable, ethical, will definitely have been processed by or manipulated by a company that doesn’t sit well with what you define as moral, ethical, sustainable. A lot of supermarkets will sell products that are produced by ethical companies, then continue to turn a blind eye on customer demands for reducing plastic packaging on their own products, using products like palm oil in their own food range, being involved in some sort of scandal, being funded by major polluters, the list goes on. So, whenever we purchase a product from a supermarket that has been involved in controversial practices, we end up supporting that company, when all we wanted was just to get a product that was perhaps only available in the supermarket or supermarkets in general. And again, why are we as consumers having to compromise on our morals because of how the market is set out? 

This then leads to another problem of companies not being transparent enough about their production and who’s involved in completing the end product or service. So no matter what we as consumers do to try to look into the brands we support or want to support, we won’t find out everything because there are too many loopholes and not enough sanctions, or not enough serious sanctions, put in place to prevent companies from engaging in unethical and unsustainable practices in the first place. So many companies are able to get away with whatever they are doing right now. That’s where issues of greenwashing come into it. You have companies like BP outrightly causing mass destruction to oceans through oil mining but then promising to invest in more green technology, which is the direct form of greenwashing. And then you have companies that just aren’t transparent enough or perhaps aren’t as large as companies like BP, so media coverage isn’t as large, and they use that for their advantage to greenwash their products by producing products that are made from materials derived from sustainable sources, but then are funded by or in partnership with massive companies that are infamous for producing large amounts of plastic waste or throwing most of their products in landfills instead of recycling etc. Until there isn’t transparency within practically everything we use and consume, there is no way that we, the public, will ever know exactly how our products have been created and who has been involved in creating them, which I think is frankly really scary. And if consumer demands for transparency and ethical practices are not being met and we are constantly being kept unaware of how many, many goods we use are actually produced, our rights as consumers in a democratic society re being infringed. We are not being allowed to practice our basic right as consumers. People will argue that we won’t know everything as individuals, and I agree. But why is it that we’ve made our systems like this that we are kept unaware of how the production looks like for services and goods? Why have we made our systems like this that we can’t get total transparency? Why are these companies hiding certain things from us? And why is that being allowed? 

All of these downsides to ethical consumerism are important, but I think the worst impact of the belief is guilt tripping customers, consumers, to believe that they have full responsibility in shaping the marketplace and that their consumer habits need to be changed, more so than the companies themselves. Since the main aim of ethical consumerism is consumer-driven change of how production occurs, all the emphasis is now put on consumers and how their habits are like, who they support, how they boycott companies or showcase their support for other ethical ones, and how do they encourage others to engage in ethical consumption. Which is all very important, but what ethical consumerism is doing now is that it is diverting the focus from being reforming producers to reforming consumers. It’s now become a way to put the blame on consumers for unethical industries existing instead of demanding industries and companies change the way that they produce their products. The narrative has been switched. We are being held accountable for the decisions of the corporate world. That’s why you see people shaming those continuing to use single use plastic bottles, those are not selling their cars to buy expensive hybrid or electrical ones, those are not cycling instead of using public transport, those that are not feeling bad about using plastic straws when they’ve been given to them by restaurants for example, those that are not choosing to buy expensive sustainable clothing instead of engaging in fast fashion, those that are buying disposable face masks instead of washable ones. 

So many companies have no desire to change their production framework but they are getting increasing pressure by governments, charitable organisations and of course the general public. So what do they do? They blame us, the consumers, for not buying enough ecofriendly products, for not boycotting unethical companies enough and not engaging in ethical consumerism enough. I have very frankly fallen into this cycle of feeling like I am the reason, or we the consumers are behind the reason, why companies like Amazon, Boohoo, BP are so popular and big right now, that because we don’t support ethical and sustainable firms enough, these brands have increased their profits over the years, and they are still getting more support than those companies that are trying so hard to make their production sustainable, pay workers above the minimum wage and keep working conditions more than just tolerable. 

Linking back to my climate change series, I was talking about different ways that we as individuals can reduce our ways to reduce our energy consumption, reduce our impact on the environment. I was focusing more on individual action and saying how I do agree that top down approaches are extremely important, but we individuals need to do our own bit as well. But my emphasis on individual action was way too big because I was going through eco-anxiety and feeling like I am the one to be blamed for these unethical industries to still be surviving. And I know I’m not alone. There are so many individuals that feel like if they aren’t zero waste or they don’t 24/7 think about how their every single move, every single activity, is contributing to literally world destruction, they are immoral beings. And then we all end up in a very toxic situation where no change is being made and your mental wellbeing is deteriorating

So, as ethical consumerism has increased over the decades, consumer activism has risen alongside it, as consumers are now beginning to question the success of ethical consumerism and its validity. Lawrence Glickman, historian at Cornell University, defines consumer activism as either a collective grassroots consumption or it’s withdrawal. So, the focus is still on consumers but this time it’s not to blame them but instead put the power into their hands, where people are free to challenge companies to make their production more ethical whilst also supporting those are already working on making their production more sustainable and reducing their negative impact on the planet. 

We have seen plenty of examples of consumer activism, such as demanding clothing retailers to pay their Bangladeshi workers during the pandemic through the Pay Up campaign. Public backlash when Starbucks prevented employees from wearing attire or accessories to support Black Lives Matter. Greenpeace activists standing on BP oil tankers to force the firm to cut down their oil and gas consumption. Collective demand for plastic packaging alternatives to be widely used for as many products as possible. Boycotting and also banning Coca Cola in certain areas due to their extensive history of exploiting workers and people in developing regions, and also their single use plastic waste which they have just started to address now. Paying attention to where pension funds are being invested and choosing their employers wisely. There are so many more examples of successful consumer activism that has resulted in actual change. Brands that continue to remain silent after public backlash, those are just essentially defamed, and consumers either reduce or stop their support completely for those companies. 

People are using social media platforms, Twitter being the best option. People are holding protests in the streets. People are making blogs, podcasts, starting movements, joining movements to make sure that their voices and their complaints, their disappointment, are all heard by unethical organisations and also by media outlets so that these companies get as much pressure as possible. What consumer activism is doing is making sure that producers are being held accountable for their unjust practices, not consumers. 

Giving Amazon as an example, no matter how hard you can try as a consumer to not engage with the company, there will always be products that will only be on Amazon, or if you urgently need a product Amazon will be the only place delivering it next day. Or even if you have managed to just boycott the company entirely, not knowing which other companies are in partnership with Amazon, again having all the loopholes that you can’t get to. So, with this example, instead of us as consumers feeling guilty about buying from Amazon, consumers should now feel empowered to take action against the company by supporting organisations that are working to challenge Amazon about their manufacturing process, work conditions, waste management, signing petitions to demand the company to change. Personally contacting the company about their disappointment and why they’re boycotting them, however I have yet to find out how exactly to do that, and also spreading the word about the realities of Amazon. Accountability is just so important for every single situation where people and the environment are exploited. It’s so important to hold the right people, the right bodies of power, accountable for their wrong actions. And the public should now be feeling empowered to do that and when they are doing it. 

So, do I think we should completely denounce ethical consumerism and go back to the days where we didn’t really question single use plastics, fossil fuels, halogen bulbs, fast fashion? Absolutely not. The reason why I was so uncomfortable about the article sent by Fashion Revolution and why I created this episode today, was because the author was saying how she has gone back to her old days of buying from Amazon and using disposable plastic cups, because ethical consumerism just doesn’t work. But I argue that there is no way that we can be consumer activists yet disengage with consuming ethically or as ethically as possible. It goes against the very purpose of consumer activism. It’s hypocritical of us if we do that. We want the corporate environment to reform, and for that we must continue to support firms that are pushing for that reformation, that aren’t greenwashing or putting the blame on consumers but actually taking responsibility in causing the reformation, to become more sustainable and ethical. We want to set these companies as an example to multinationals and big organisations that have failed horribly at doing the same thing. And we need to prioritise our morals and engage with those with similar morals to us. We shouldn’t be compromising in that sense. 

Ethical consumerism is the first step in identifying the flaws in modern day consumption and realising that it needs to be changed. But should be then fall into a cycle of self-blame, anxiety about not doing enough for worker rights and the protection of the environment? Again, absolutely not. We just need to redefine ethical consumerism by putting consumer activism at the core of the belief, where consumers are just given full power to challenge industries and companies that are failing to respond to demands to be more conscious about their social and environmental impacts. I still strongly believe that people power, the power of the public, is immense and that we have more than enough power to drive revolutionary change and we have seen many examples of this currently and in history, but we really need to understand that grassroot work, in the form of individual support and purchases, is just not going to be enough. 

If we are demanding for systemic change, we need to collectively challenge these companies and industries. We need demand that the government strengthens their sanctions against these firms that have failed to meet targets. We need to practice our consumer rights in a more efficient and effective way by joining forces with those that are already doing so much to hold these firms accountable. And for that, we need to continue to support ethical brands as much as we can and continue to support organisations that are challenging controversial firms. 

But we also need to remember to not put ourselves down in the process. Don’t feel like if you’re buying something from Amazon or if you’re using a plastic straw, you are the villain of the story, because us consumers feeling guilty about our actions is just another tactic by large companies to divert our attention from reforming them to reforming ourselves. And that needs to change now. 

OUTRO: I was discussing my podcast growth and journey so far with a friend and she mentioned that it would be worthwhile if I could do some review episodes on whether my opinions have changed over the year, and since I was releasing this episode, I realised I could carry out the reflection through seeing how I’ve changed about ethical consumption. So, I do hope you can see that change. This topic is very important to me, so I hope you are all able to learn something new or challenge your own viewpoints. 

That’s it for now. Please subscribe to the podcast and also the newsletter. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Support the show by giving iTunes reviews, I will read them out like today, and you can also buy my 100% recycled acrylic pin badges on my website, mindfullofeverything.home.blog. Keep let me know how you find the podcast and what perhaps you want to hear, please do take care of yourself and your loved ones, and keep listening to Mind Full of Everything!