Is any consumption ethical?

Consumer conversations for the holidays

The pre-holiday season is a busy time for marketing – from Black Friday through to Christmas, brands are vying for consumer attention and dollars. Amongst the prompts to buy more, there are movements afoot to buy less. Buy Nothing Day (a 24-hour moratorium on shopping) was established to counter the hyper-consumerism of Black Friday.

And between these two poles, there’s yet another thread: the encouragement and subtle pressure to buy better, to engage in ethical consumption.

An enterprise named Just Little Changes posted an image on Facebook on Nov. 6 with the caption “The Ethical Hierarchy of Gift Purchasing.” At the top of the hierarchy is a category titled “Give memories” (examples being event tickets, experience days, memberships), followed by “Give your time” (‘help decorating’ vouchers, share your skills), then “Upcycle,” “Buy Second Hand” and “Make.” The final two options at the bottom of the hierarchy are “Ethical buy” (organic, ethical) and “Buy” (described as a last resort).

While this “ethical hierarchy” may not offer a universal definition of ethical consumption, it does reflect a set of priorities common to messaging around buying better, or alternatives to consumption.

Presenting a set of options in a hierarchy assumes a value judgment between them. Some options are ranked as better or worse than others. This arrangement also presumes that the further up the hierarchy a consumer can travel, the more effective their changes may be.

But who are these options available to? Can they lead to social change? And what, at its root, is ethical consumption? Is it even possible in our current economic climate?

How do we consume?

Tyler Ibrahim is a team member at The Local Frequency, an app designed to encourage Manitobans to shop locally and accrue “local dollars” within the app.

“We sometimes use the word ‘consumer’ when we’re talking about customers, and I think it’s dangerous work, because consumption implies to me consuming for no reason, as opposed to conscious consumption,” Ibrahim says. “When I think of ethical consumption, I think first and foremost about conscious consumption, and then based on each individual and the values that they have, they may have different definitions of what ethical consumption is.”

Ibrahim describes a theory called “jobs to be done,” which focuses less on the object or service being purchased, but on what a person is trying to achieve through that purchase.

“You buy for a reason that might be deeper than what it is on the surface. So, for example, am I buying a Slurpee because it tastes good, or am I buying a Slurpee because maybe I’m bored and I need something to fidget with?” he explains.

Within the context of the economy, Ibrahim is critical of the notion of constant growth that is deemed necessary for many publicly traded companies to survive, and that creates an “adversarial” relationship between employees of the companies who are required to sell to create growth, and the consumer, who may neither need nor want the thing being sold to them.

“Maybe by finding other companies that are less growth-oriented, you’ll find purchases that maybe you’re going to be happier with long-term, less cognitive dissonance, because the person actually did want to sell it to you,” Ibrahim says.

Tyler Ibrahim is part of The Local Frequency, an app that encourages buying local.

Conscious consumerism and knowledge of how purchases fit into the larger picture are critical elements for Aiden Enns. Enns is the editor of Geez Magazine, which he describes with the tagline of “Contemplative cultural resistance.”

In defining ethical consumption, Enns prioritizes “thinking of the creatures and the land or the resources, that’s part of ethics, and feeling the connectedness of everything. And also attending to the justice issue that’s involved with resource extraction and labour production, ownership, and then (the) impact of waste.”

“I think that the holiday season is a very important time to make a statement of resistance against consumer capitalism. It’s one of the places where we rub closely up against the economic structure that’s not sustainable, that’s very destructive and wasteful.”

Who gets to make a “better” choice?

Some of the options presented under an ethical consumption rubric may cost less but make use of different resources – such as time, energy and physical ability.

Jayelyn Rae, who describes themself as a big queer anti-capitalist, finds many ethical consumption options to be “not only ableist, but it’s classist, too ... It does come down to a lot of varying abilities, too, and don’t shame people for that.”

Beyond time and energy-intensive DIY options, the ability to vote with your dollar – to buy locally, or organic – presumes the availability of disposable income, which isn’t the reality for many locals. Alex Kohut, owner of the Vintage Saint (a small-scale used clothing store), explains:

“It really does phase out people who don’t have a choice, really. If you look at some of the lower-price point items at Giant Tiger, everything is wrapped in plastic, and it’s like, I still need to buy these bananas at this price, because if I don’t, then I don’t eat fruit for the week,” he says.

While ethical consumption could be an option for some, practicing conscious consumerism isn’t useful if it results in shaming those who can’t access the same options.

“Ethical consumption costs more money, so … it’s more difficult for those who don’t have as much discretionary income. And if this becomes another way to demonize those folks, then that’s a bad thing. It should be seen as, ‘if you’re able to, then fantastic,’” Ibrahim says. “The last thing you should be doing is demonizing those who aren’t doing that. It’s just unproductive.”

While conversations about consumption habits may be a starting point for ethical consumption, conversations about the limits of ethical consumption are necessary as well.

“You can see (ethical consumption has) catered to white rich people,” Rae says. “It’s nice to see now people are coming out and saying 'hey, this isn’t accessible.'"

The impacts of a seemingly positive suggestion like buying local may also have more insidious side effects, according to Rae.

“You could look geographically in Winnipeg and see where local shops are stationed, and it’s almost always in a gentrifying area,” Rae says.

“When people say buy locally is ethical, it just hurts me, because you’re not only pushing people out of their area by supporting these businesses, you’re also creating a sham that is like, because you’re supporting locally you’re maybe even being anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist … it does leave out working-class people in all of this, which is the majority of Winnipeg.”

Small or systemic change?

One of the subtexts of ethical consumption is the assumption that it’s an easy option with a cumulative effect: If many individuals make small changes, they’ll add up to bigger changes and might be able to address larger systemic problems – such as environmental degradation caused by waste, human rights and labour violations and structural inequalities
under capitalism.

But when consumers vote with their dollars, what is the scope of their actual impact?

“If we make a small shift to local, it’s going to lead to massive economic impact, so (in the) city of Winnipeg, if we make five per cent of our purchases locally that we’re currently making with chains, we’re going to have 3,000 additional jobs in Winnipeg and $100 million for our local economy, so that’s significant,” Ibrahim explains.

However, the cumulative effect of these small changes could be equal to the effect of another phenomenon that is less recognized, he says, such as “another really big business in Winnipeg … transferring five per cent of its supply chain outside of Manitoba.”

Kohut has considered questions around ethical consumption while building his vintage clothing business. He’s uncomfortable with “the idea that the consumer (holds) the sole responsibility to ethical consumption.”

“I don’t think it befalls solely on the people who are buying stuff. I think that the people who are producing should be doing their best as well to lower their impact, as opposed to anyone who just needs the things that they need. So I feel like that’s one of the pitfalls of that idea, is that it’s only on us to make sure that there’s less plastic in the ocean or whatever,” Kohut says.

While the small changes might help people feel good about themselves, “we need system change to actually make a difference,”
Ibrahim says.

Rae echoes the need for change on a scale larger than individual consumer decisions. They describe the performance of ethical
consumption as lifestylism.

Lifestylism “is not going to make a difference ... One person who doesn’t use a straw a day, or one person who doesn’t eat meat – I know it does add up, but, essentially, you need a mass movement. And that’s not going to happen through an unorganized movement like that,” Rae says.

“You can look at Idle No More and Black Lives Matter – that’s a bit more organized movement – and you can see that they are (making) a bit more differences. But people just yelling about ethical consumption over the internet or something is not going to work.”

Getting organized

As with any movement for social change, actions made in isolation won’t necessarily add up to create a tangible shift.

“(T)here’s certain things that you can do on your own, and there’s certain things you need to do with other people. So if I’m going to turn the lights off when I leave the room, I can do that. But if we’re going to try to make the world less reliant on oil, we need to get together and co-ordinate our efforts,” Ibrahim says.

“Maybe it’s in addition to people making the small changes, we also need to mobilize and have some solidarity.”

Enns agrees that more co-ordinated actions are needed, but says that conversations around ethical consumption can be a valuable
starting point.

“Individual consumer ethical consumption is not enough, but I also think that if social change, if economic change, if big change is going to happen, it has to happen with grassroots resurgence or organizing. And organizing around ethical consumption can be a catalyst for waking people up or having people realize that it’s all connected,” he says. “Then with that sense of purpose, or connection, we can gather together and then use our collective voice to make a difference.”

One of the largest barriers to organizing in a way that might challenge effects of capitalism and its effects is capitalism itself, Rae says.

“With working-class people, you’re working, you don’t want to do all that (organizing), but it is what you need to do. And capitalism has done such a good job of alienating people from their communities and creating competition between people, too.

“Like colonialism, patriarchy, gender roles, white supremacy, it’s all so meshed together. You can’t just pull at one string and say ‘hey, we got that one!’ Those are all going to come undone at once, and that’s going to take a revolution, I’m going to say it. People need to rise up and organize their communities, organize themselves. And that’s hard to do.”

Consuming hope or denial?

Ethical consumption may not be a direct route to large-scale change, it may be inaccessible to many, and it may be one of many broader approaches needed to address inequality. But for those who can access ethical options, what purpose does it serve?

“It’s a big and kind of confusing thing. Where do we fit on this chain, and where does the responsibility lie, that’s a big question,” Kohut says.

He emphasizes that challenges to narratives around ethical consumption only help to broaden the discussion.

“I think that’s one (question) that a lot more people are asking right now, especially with our wants to have things be more accessible to people, and having those voices playing a bigger part in our decision making for a lot of folks is important.”

Regardless of who is included, Rae doesn’t see ethical consumption as being possible, as it can’t be separated from the broader global context.

“When you’re spending money on anything, it comes from imperialist mining in the Philippines, it comes from Dasani’s water mines. Nothing’s going to be good, and it sucks to say, but also you’re allowed to live your life the cheapest and most successful way that you can.”

Ethical consumption can act as a form of denial, but it can also build hope.

“It’s kind of a way of us putting our head in the sand and feeling good about stuff,” Ibrahim says of the limits of ethical consumption. But also, “If you start realizing the way the world works, it can become pretty disheartening, so it can be a way to make people hopeful ... there’s no harm in people making those changes.”

For Enns, ethical consumption is a gesture, however imperfect.

“I think the purity or the super consistency’s overrated. We are so caught up in a web of complicity with the way that society is structured, the way that economics weaves its way into our very lives or patterns of functioning, the way we rely on money and how we have to get money and spend money … So a gesture of resistance is significant. It doesn’t have to be an absolute or clear statement,” he says.

“And that orients you in a certain way, and you can find solidarity with others above and below you on the socio-economic spectrum, and then you can move towards something that’s a better future. And in that tiny move that you have, you feel a sense of hope and purpose, which is kind of hard to find, especially at this over-consumptive time of year.”

Published in Volume 73, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 22, 2018)

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