How to Be an Ethical Consumer in Today's World

A woman examines golden beets from a local vendor

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The average person who reads the news is aware of the many problems that stem from how global capitalism and consumerism operateGlobal warming and climate change threaten to wipe out our species and the planet. Dangerous and deadly working conditions are common on the production lines of many goods we consume. Tainted and toxic food products appear regularly on the shelves of grocery stores. People working in many industries and services sectors, from fast food to retail, to education, cannot afford to feed themselves and their families without food stamps. The list of problems could go on and on.

When the problems connected to our way of life are so many and diverse, how can we act in ways that are rooted in respect for the environment and others? How can we be ethical consumers?

Wide-Ranging Consequences

Being an ethical consumer in today’s world requires first recognizing that consumption is not just embedded in economic relations, but also social and political ones. Because of this, what we consume matters beyond the immediate context of our lives. When we consume goods or services brought to us by the economic system of capitalism, we effectively agree with how this system works. By purchasing goods produced by this system we give our consent, by virtue of our participation, to the distribution of profit and costs throughout supply chains, to how much the people who make stuff are paid and to the massive accumulation of wealth enjoyed by those at the top.

Not only do our consumer choices support and affirm the economic system as it exists, but they also provide legitimacy to the global and national policies that make the economic system possible. Our consumer practices give our consent to the unequal distribution power and unequal access to rights and resources that are fostered by our political systems.

Finally, when we consume, we place ourselves into social relationships with all the people who participate in producing, packaging, exporting and importing, marketing, and selling the goods we buy, and with all of those who participate in providing the services we purchase. Our consumer choices connect us in both good and bad ways to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So consumption, though an everyday and unremarkable act, is actually embedded in a complex, global web of economic, political, and social relations. As such, our consumer practices have sweeping implications. What we consume matters.

Critical Thinking

For most of us, the implications of our consumer practices remain unconscious or subconscious, in large part because they are far removed from us, geographically speaking. However, when we think consciously and critically about them, they can take on a different kind of economic, social, and political significance. If we frame the problems that stem from global production and consumption as unethical or morally corrupt, then we can visualize a pathway to ethical consumption by selecting products and services that break from harmful and destructive patterns. If unconscious consumption supports and reproduces the problematic status quo, then a critically conscious, ethical consumption can challenge it by supporting alternative economic, social, and political relations of production and consumption.

Let’s examine a couple of key issues, and then consider what an ethical consumer response to them looks like.

Raising Wages

Many of the products we consume are affordable because they are produced by low-wage workers around the world who are kept in impoverished conditions by the capitalist imperative to pay as little as possible for labor. Nearly every global industry is plagued with this problem, including consumer electronics, fashion, food, and toys, to name just a few. Farmers who sell produce via global commodities markets, like those who grow coffee and tea, cocoa, sugar, fruits and vegetables, and grains, are historically underpaid. Human rights and labor organizations, and some private businesses have worked to reduce this problem by shortening the global supply chain that extends between producers and consumers. This means removing people and organizations from that supply chain so that those who actually make the goods receive more money for doing so. This is how fair trade certified and direct trade systems work, and often how organic and sustainable local food works too. It is also the basis of the Fairphone, a business response to the troubled mobile communications industry.

In these cases, it's not just shortening the supply chain that improves the situation for workers and producers, but also, the transparency of it, and the regulation of it that ensures that fair prices are paid to workers and that they work in safe and respectful conditions.

Protecting the Environment

Another key set of problems stemming from the global system of capitalist production and consumption is environmental in nature and includes the sapping of resources, environmental degradation, pollution, and global warming and climate change. In this context, ethical consumers look for products that are sustainably produced, like organic (certified or not, as long as transparent and trusted), carbon neutral, and mixed-cropped instead of using resource-intensive monoculture farming. Additionally, ethical consumers seek products made from recycled or renewable materials, and also, look to reduce their consumption and waste footprint by repairing, reusing, repurposing, sharing and trading, and by recycling. Measures that extend the life of a product help reduce the unsustainable use of resources that global production and consumption requires. Ethical disposal is just as important as ethical consumption.

So, it is possible to be an ethical consumer in today’s world. It requires conscientious practice, and a commitment to consuming less overall in order to pay a higher price for equitable, environmentally sustainable goods. However, from a sociological standpoint, there are other issues around culture and race that raise other ethical issues regarding consumption, and these deserve critical attention too.