What is ethical consumption and how can we be more ethical consumers?

Ethical consumption is typically understood as the practice of buying products with a consideration of how where they originated and were produced affects other people, communities and the environment.

For example, does a product use sustainable materials? Does the manufacturer pay its workers a fair wage? Does the product have a minimal carbon footprint?

These are all issues that we need to better understand as consumers and factor into our buying decisions.

Every time one of us makes a purchase, we are essentially voting with our wallets, in terms of what we do or don’t find acceptable and what we empower businesses to do in our names.

Ethical consumption recognises that, by seeking to buy products that align with our values and beliefs, we have the power to influence business to be more sustainable, ethical and accountable.

If, however, we keep buying from companies that actively have a negative impact on groups of people, communities or the wider planet, we are funding this with each purchase.

The hidden costs of a product

In our current economic system, every product has a cost that goes beyond the price we pay for it as the end consumer.

These costs can include:

– The damage caused by pollution for production, import or export

– The financial impact on families and communities due to low wages

– Deforestation leading to the extinction of species and damage to ecosystems

– Climate change

These are just a few examples.

In economic terms, these costs that go beyond what we would expect to factor in the price of something (e.g. production, shipping, marketing, etc.), are known as “externalities”. Sadly, externalities tend to be paid for by the poorest component in the supply chain and wider society, even though it might never be explicitly stated.

Ethical consumption is about trying to minimise these externalities or, better still, cancel them out or even pay into the most vulnerable groups associated with a product. The idea is that in time, this will improve society as a whole.

What makes a product ethical?

This is a difficult question to answer because, ultimately, ethics are context-dependent.

We can view something from the outside and believe that it is the most ethical choice. However, a closer look may bring up different perspectives that challenge this.

A perfect example is Fair Trade.

There’s no doubt that Fair Trade has a great many benefits. It is a concept born out of the desire to create parity for farmers, growers and producers in the developing world.

It has been seen to have hugely positive outcomes, such as:

– Reducing child labour

– Increasing wages

– Ensuring a minimum price for farmers

– Improving resources for communities

For many people, it is a model that has been transformative.

However, there are those that feel the Fair Trade model is flawed. The fees for certification are high enough that they may be prohibitive to the small and medium-sized producers that the scheme was set up to help.

There are also concerns that producers don’t have enough accountability and that standards aren’t widely enforced.

These people would ask, are there more ethical alternatives to Fair Trade?

This is, of course, a very broad overview of a complex issue and not something we can answer in this article.

The point is that, to a certain degree, what we consider to be ethical will depend on our perspective, including our priorities, our values and our individual circumstances.

Fortunately, some basic ethical standards are universal and we can use these as our starting point.

For example, we can all agree that it isn’t ethical for businesses to:

– Break the law (or pay someone else to do it)

– Hurt or kill people

– Use unsafe or unsustainable ingredients

– Damage the environment

At the very least, we should be looking for businesses that exceed these standards. And at Ethical Globe we would add ‘use, hurt or kill other animals’ to the above list.

But how can we know for sure that a product is ethical? And does that mean that, unless proven ethical, we should assume all other products are unethical?

We need to ask questions as consumers

The reality is that no business is going to advertise itself or its products as unethical. You won’t find proof of workers’ wages or their working conditions on the label of your favourite T-shirt. You won’t find a breakdown of tax avoidance in the next parcel you receive.

Ethical consumption is about addressing this.

It’s about encouraging us, as consumers, to spend our money with businesses that are transparent and actively doing good things.

But how can we find the ethical businesses out there?

Here are a few tips:

– Ask questions – when going into your local café, for example, ask them about their suppliers or their connections with local businesses

– Do your research – a quick online search may help you find news or reports about a company’s ethical (or unethical) practices

– Share information – if you come across a fantastic ethical small business, help them out by sharing a review or praising them on local community social media pages

– Look for guides and directories such as Ethical Globe promoting ethical companies

Boycott unethical brands

– Take part in campaigns targeting ethical issues

Ultimately, we have to show up as consumers and ask for accountability from businesses. We also have to recognise our power to vote with our wallets.

There’s no denying that the system is flawed. The more money you have, the more votes you carry as a consumer which is unfair. Ethical consumption can only take us so far.

But within this flawed system, we can still bring as many people as possible together so that we can add the collective weight of our votes to influence business to do the right thing and also live our values.

If you know a company that is making a positive difference in the world, shout it from the rooftops, share it with your networks and invest in that business by buying from them. It’s one of the most immediate ways that we can encourage change.


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