Ethical Consumerism and Conservatism – Hand In Glove


By Jacqueline Payne, HCPM ’12

Ethical consumerism: very much a loaded term with a lot of different connotations, but with a vastly growing appeal. If you are new to the concept, you may think of it as a somewhat radical movement to end corporate abuse, pollution, human slavery, and so on. You may believe that it is just another way for corporations to exploit a market of concerned consumers who spend more money for the same products you buy (except for a hipster-esque label) so they can sleep well at night without having done a thing to save what they think is a world in need of a revolution. Because of the sheer breadth of the different contextual frameworks of what it could mean, it is important to simplify the concept.

Simply put, a consumer is someone that buys things. Every person on the planet is a consumer. An ethical consumer is someone who buys things that are produced ethically. Depending on the context, ethical production may mean producing something that is recycled, using labor that is produced in facilities without the use of slavery and child labor, or processing food that is raised organic or free range. If you buy one of these products, you could be an ethical consumer and not even know it… or you may not be one. However, the whole point of the ethical consumerism movement is that you “know” what you are buying and that you buy things that are produced ethically because not “knowing” leads to abuse and exploitation.

Imagine this scenario: you are a customer at a shoe store looking for a pair of size 8 black sneakers from your favorite designer that you have bought from for years. The clerk goes to the back and brings out three identical boxes for size 8 black sneakers. One is for the shoe you wanted, and the two others for remarkably similar pairs of size 8 shoes. The clerk tells you to choose a box you want. You give the clerk a funny look and ask her why she has wasted your time by having had run to the back and gotten you two pairs of shoes you had not asked for. Not only that, but she is now making you take another unnecessary step by having you make a choice.

Without specifying the brand of shoe in each box, the clerk tells you that one pair was made in Cambodia by a company that has been exposed as exploiting child slaves trafficked from a neighboring village. Another pair is certified as meeting Fairtrade standards: freedom from discrimination (on the grounds of race, religion, gender, politics, and ethnic or social origin), freedom of association (the right to join a trade union) and collective bargaining, fair conditions of employment (wages, working hours, overtime, sick pay, leave etc.), no forced or child labor (minimum age of 15 years), and occupational health and safety (a safe working environment). For the last shoe, you are told the store is unaware of the conditions that it was produced in, but that it had been made in a third-world country where the standards for workplace conditions and labor are either non-existent, or not enforced.

Surprised, you have never been presented with these facts at the point of purchase, or ever had to reconcile that what you buy may have supported things that you are completely against. Now having assumed some conscionable responsibility by this new information, you are given 2 options. You are allowed the choice of whatever box you desire, without first knowing what designer shoe it belongs to, or you can knowingly choose to buy your designer shoe at a 25% discount without the clerk telling you which box it came from.  Basically, would you take your favorite shoe at a discount with the chance that it may have been made by child slaves, or you can buy a shoe, for a premium, that was made adhering to ethical standards? Now you just feel flustered thinking you have been baited into some extreme decision making scenario when you only wanted to buy your favorite sneakers. The sad fact is, we all have faced decisions like this every day: Happily ignorant.

Today, with almost unlimited access to information through the internet, action groups, and social networking, not “knowing” about the source of the products you choose to consume is a state of ignorance and is one of the many reasons why human slavery, exploitation, animal suffering, and environmental dumping exists today. The opposite of ethical consumerism is, by default, ignorant, negligent, and exploitive consumerism. Regardless of what type of consumer you may be, the point of the ethical consumerism movement is to consume products in a way that ends this abuse and unnecessary suffering.

Whether you knew it or not, everyone has a stake in the movement. There is indeed a moral component to our economic footprint. In a market economy, we vote with our money. How we choose to spend our money is an expression of what we value. Because we hold future revenue to any business in our pockets, we are empowered at some level in how they choose to operate as a company. It seems like a very radical stance, but rather, it is a very conservative one.

An ideal free market, capitalist economy trends towards perfect information for both the producer and the consumer. When companies operate under standards that consumers do not approve of, yet hide behind the shield of another country’s regulations and deceitful marketing propaganda, they deviate from the conservative ideal. While pure competition is unrealistic and impossible in most situations, certifications, standards and labels that verify and provide information on ethical production adherence exist for those who want to empower themselves against businesses that exploit the disenfranchised. That being said, an ethical, free market economy can only exist if businesses and consumers take on the responsibility of adhering to these standards with the conscious consumer holding businesses accountable that do not. Unfortunately, this too is a far-reaching ideal that has proven near impossible, which is why it is still very necessary for regulations to exist. However, the more information a consumer is able to receive on things they value, in order to make a conscionable choice, the more conservative they become.

To end, I want to share the article that led me to write this opinion. One of the major drivers of the ethical consumerism movement is the general ignorance of how rampant exploitation is in the production of things we regularly consume. The article called Slavery in Cacao Fields: A Horrible Normal by CNN’s Freedom Project writer’s David McKenzie and Brent Swails discusses child slavery in the production of chocolate. It is absolutely shocking.


-       Jacqueline Payne