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Ethical Consumerism, An Introduction

This article was written by in Consumer. 8 comments.

As I shared with you a few weeks ago, I choose to pay more for my electricity. And in 2007, 71 percent of my total grocery budget went to support local agriculture and small businesses.

Each year, I buy a harvest share at a local community supported agriculture farm. I promise to start waxing poetic about my fabulous fruits and veggies once they start pouring in around mid-May. But for now, my topic of discussion is the act of deliberately choosing certain sources and providers for my purchases.

Sometimes I spend more, sometimes less, but I always try to spend consciously. And this concept is at the very root of ethical consumerism.

Wikipedia defines ethical consumerism as:

…buying things that are made ethically. Generally, this means without harm to or exploitation of humans, animals or the natural environment.

I find this to be a somewhat narrow definition, really, as ethics are a highly personal matter. While I may believe in supporting local agriculture and channeling my grocery budget away from factory and agribusiness farms, someone else may want the Coca-Cola company to take over the market and choose to channel all his spending towards their products.

I prefer to look at it instead as conscious spending. Whatever my interests, when I look over my budget and spending, I want it to reflect my personal moral criteria. There are two main ways to accomplish this goal: paying for products and services you believe in, and avoiding those you don’t.

Positive Buying – This is the term used for what I call “voting with your dollars,” channeling your spending towards recycled or fair trade goods, local organic farms, woman- or minority-owned businesses, cruelty-free products, etcetera. Essentially, you are investing your monies in a business you believe in, helping to ensure its success.

The United Kingdom has a relatively active ethical consumist movement, and even a magazine dedicated to the topic, Ethical Consumer. The publication rates companies according to an “ethiscore” which is meant to assess the environmental, human/animal rights, and political impact of each company, the idea being that consumers can then choose to support companies with the lowest negative impact.

Moral Boycott – The other side of this is the avoidance of companies whose practices you do not support. Ethical Consumer has a large list of these as well, including:

  • Adidas, for its use of kangaroo skin in footwear
  • ChevronTexaco, for dumping toxic waste in the Amazon
  • Starbucks, for failing to support fair trade practices

If you watched Blood Diamond and then decided never to purchase diamond jewelry, you are practicing moral boycott.

Why Bother? – Well, sometimes it works. The primary law of consumerism, if you buy it, they will sell it, comes into play when these purchasing behaviors are witnessed on a larger scale. Wal-Mart starts selling organic products. Sweatshops close, while fair trade coffee shops open. There’s been talk that specific purchasing behaviors only serve to create niche markets, but these markets are growing.

Just this month, BusinessWire reported that:

The organic food segment dominates overall organics spending with sales in excess of US$20 billion in Europe and US$17 billion in the US alone. Food products are also increasingly being tagged as organic. In 2007 15.1% of new food product launches tracked by Productscan were tagged as organic, compared to 7.3% in 2002.

As the ethical movement has grown, a number of companies have tried to position themselves as green, some with more success than others. Going forward it is imperative that businesses create a clear plan of how to re-adjust to meet consumer demand or risk being left behind.

While some companies merely posture (a tactic termed “greenwashing“), many companies are reacting to public demand and pursuing more socially responsible and environmentally sound business practices.

Conscious buying alone may always not achieve what you’re looking for. If environmental impact is what concerns you, tossing a household full of products into a landfill won’t offset all your new, green purchases. Buying consciously while buying only what you need is the key.

Does your spending reflect your beliefs?

Updated December 20, 2011 and originally published April 22, 2008.

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About the author

Along with her partner, Sasha owns and manage six residential rental units. Sasha endeavors to support the causes and organizations she believes in through more conscientious spending practices. View all articles by .

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Excellent post!

Thanks for posting this – sometimes people don’t think enough about where there dollars ultimately end up. I love my CSA (started getting eggs and asparagus this week) and I have participated in several moral boycotts in the past (and I still won’t shop at Wal-Mart). I hadn’t heard of the Adidas thing…

Money really does talk.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I seem to be on the “moral boycott” bandwagon. I was a vegetarian for years because of the terrible way slaughterhouses treat their workers and their livestock. I don’t want a diamond – ever. And I just joined a CSA.

I think it’s home training. My mother refused to buy Shell gas in the 1980s because of their labor practices in Africa and their glass ceiling for women executives. Being young and impressionable, my three siblings and I took this to heart… and still don’t buy gas at Shell.

Social media should help make consumer boycotts more organized – and thus more effective. Companies only really respond to calls for them to be “more ethical” when it’s impacting their bottom line. One person has a small impact, together we have a large one.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I try to avoid products made in China, but that’s nearly impossible most of the time. I also consider what corporations have done that’s evil. But the problem with “buying ethically” is that all corporations do some bad things. Just because you hear about it with one company doesn’t mean that other companies aren’t doing socially irresponsible things. It’s just that they escaped the media scrutiny somehow. So boycotting certain corporations may not be fair. In other cases though companies are called out for lots of irresponsible actions. Maybe then, it makes sense to not buy their products or services.(?)


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avatar 4 Anonymous

We’ve noticed a difference in the way we feel when we eat mostly local, mostly organic foods. We feel healthier, eat better and actually save money in the long run. No tempting impulse buys at big chain “super centers”

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Interesting post and definitely something to think about. I will say that while I still shop at Wal-Mart, I should look at it more in terms of helping out the local economy rather than a giant.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I’ve read this post and the other post you mentioned about buying alternative energy. I checked for alternative energy where I live in NC. I found I too can spend more on my electricity in order to support the use of renewable generation of elecitricity. I went ahead and signed up for this because I believe it is the right thing to do.

I also looked for green mutual funds to invest in. I’m now using my Roth IRA to invest in green mutual funds.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

This is very interesting. I only sorta consider myself an ethical consumer – I try to buy local, I try for organic, and my interest is peaked by the words “fair trade” on a label.

But I also don’t have the time or energy to research most of my purchases for their ethical production. I just really don’t. However, I’m seeing more and more focus on sustainable buying, and I’m slowly accumulating ways to spend a little more justly without trying too hard.

I’m one of the many who don’t do much, but whose efforts will add up. You are one of the few who enable us to do those small efforts. Thank you for this article.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I started boycotting a few companies years ago, but I was always a bit embarrassed about it, so I rarely mention it. I feel I’m annoying enough with my constant reducing, reusing and recycling practices (yes, I go through other people’s garbage at work…. haven’t they heard about recycling????)

Ethical consumerism sounds so much better. Maybe now I can come out and talk about it….

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