The Challenges of Ethical Living in a Consumer Society

On the Hierarchy of Tastes and the Politics of Class

Shoppers walk through a retail district, passing by a woman begging for money on the street, symbolizing the ethical issues that plague consumer society.
Women tourists walk past a female street beggar in the San Marco shopping district of Venice, Italy. Richard Baker/Getty Images

Many people around the world work to make ethical consumer choices in their everyday lives. They do this in response to the troubling conditions that plague global supply chains and the human-made climate crisis. Approaching these issues from a sociological standpoint, we can see that our consumer choices matter because they have sweeping economic, social, environmental, and political implications that reach far beyond the context of our everyday lives.

In this sense, what we choose to consume matters very much, and it is possible to be a conscientious, ethical consumer.

Yet, when we broaden the critical lens through which we examine consumption, sociologists see a more complicated picture. In this view, global capitalism and consumerism have created crises of ethics that make it very difficult to frame any form of consumption as ethical.

Consumption and the Politics of Class

At the center of this problem is that consumption is tangled up in the politics of class in some troubling ways. In his study of consumer culture in France, Pierre Bourdieu found that consumer habits tend to reflect the amount of cultural and educational capital one has, and also, the economic class position of one’s family. This would be a neutral outcome if the resulting consumer practices were not slotted into a hierarchy of tastes, with wealthy, formally educated people at the top, and the poor and not formally educated at the bottom.

However, Bourdieu’s findings suggest that consumer habits both reflect and reproduce the class-based system of inequality that courses through industrial and post-industrial societies.

Another French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, argued in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, that consumer goods have a “sign value” because they exist within the system of all goods.

Within this system of goods/signs, the symbolic value of each good is determined primarily by how it is viewed in relation to others. So, cheap and knock-off goods exist in relation to mainstream and luxury goods, and business attire exists in relation to casual clothing and urban wear, for example. A hierarchy of goods, defined by quality, design, aesthetics, availability, and even ethics, begets a hierarchy of consumers. Those who can afford the goods at the top of the status pyramid are viewed in higher standing than their peers of lower economic classes and marginalized cultural backgrounds.

You might be thinking, “So what? People buy what they can afford, and some people can afford more expensive things. What’s the big deal?” From a sociological standpoint, the big deal is the collection of assumptions we make about people based on what they consume. Consider, for instance, how two hypothetical people might be perceived differently as they move through the world. A man in his sixties with clean cut hair, wearing a smart sport coat, pressed slacks and collared shirt, and a pair of shiny mahogany colored loafers drives a Mercedes sedan, frequents upscale bistros, and shops at fine stores like Nieman Marcus and Brooks Brothers.

Those he encounters on a daily basis are likely to assume him smart, distinguished, accomplished, cultured, well educated, and moneyed. He is likely to be treated with dignity and respect, unless he does something egregious to warrant otherwise.

By contrast, a 17 year-old boy, diamond studs in his ears, baseball cap askew on his head, walks the streets in a baggy, dark hoodie sweatshirt, and loose fitting, low-slung jeans over white, unlaced basketball sneakers. He eats at fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and shops at discount outlets and cheap chain stores. It is likely that those he encounters will see him as up to no good, perhaps even a criminal. They will likely assume him poor, undereducated, not good for much, and inappropriately invested in consumer culture. He may experience disrespect and disregard on a daily basis, despite how he behaves toward others.

In a system of consumer signs, those who make the ethical choice to purchase fair trade, organic, locally grown, sweat-free, sustainable goods, are also often seen as morally superior to those who don’t know, or don’t care, to make these kinds of purchases. In the landscape of consumer goods, being an ethical consumer awards one with heightened cultural capital and a higher social status in relation to other consumers. A sociologist would then ask, if ethical consumption reproduces problematic hierarchies of class, race, and culture, then, how ethical is it?

The Problem of Ethics in a Consumer Society

Beyond the hierarchy of goods and people fostered by consumerist culture, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s theoretical discussion of what it means to live in a society of consumers raises the question of whether ethical life practice is even possible in this context. According to Bauman, a society of consumers thrives on and fuels rampant individualism and self-interest above all else. He argues that while this stems from operating within a consumerist context in which we are obligated to consume to be the best, most desired and valued versions of ourselves, this standpoint has come to infuse all of our social relationships. In a society of consumers we are prone to be callous, selfish, and devoid of empathy and concern for others, and for the common good.

Our lack of interest in the welfare of others is furthered by the waning of strong community ties in favor of fleeting, weak ties experienced only with others who share our consumer habits, like those we see at the café, the farmers market, or at a music festival.

Rather than investing in communities and those within them, whether geographically rooted or otherwise, we instead operate as swarms, moving from one trend or event to the next. From a sociological standpoint, this signals a crisis of morals and ethics, because if we are not part of communities with others, we are unlikely to experience moral solidarity with others around the shared values, beliefs, and practices that allow for cooperation and social stability.

The research of Bourdieu, and the theoretical observations of Baudrillard and Bauman, raise the alarm in response to the idea that consumption can be ethical, and the suggestion that we should consciously channel our ethics and politics into our consumer practices. While the choices we make as consumers do matter, practicing a truly ethical life requires us to invest in strong community ties, and to think critically and often beyond self-interest. It is difficult to do these things when navigating the world from the standpoint of a consumer. Rather, social, economic, and environmental justice follow ethical citizenship.