The illusion of an ethical choice

“Ethical” consumption is not going to change the world – direct, collective action is needed

Protesters against consumerism in Seattle.                                            Photo Credit: John Henderson/ Flickr

In January, France was taken aback by the infamous “Nutella riots”. Because of a 75% discount on one kilogram jars, several French hypermarkets were packed by crowds that turned out to be as erratic as Dubliners trying to buy bread on the eve of Storm Emma.

Online footage showing brawls over the cocoa spread became viral and resulted in an immediate backlash. The incomprehension prompted by the videos was complete. After all, France is not known for being on the brink of famine. One argument was especially recurrent: why would people fight over something as unappealing as Nutella?

For environmentally conscious people, Nutella is indeed the very opposite of thoughtful consumption. It is both unhealthy and full of palm oil. It purportedly hastens deforestation around the world. Why start a riot for a product which will eventually poison your children?

Ostensibly, the preceding argument is appealing. However, on closer examination, it subtly and disturbingly conveys a mix of classism and moral smugness. It overlooks the fact that, unfortunately, not everyone can afford healthy and organic food products. When interviewed, several “rioters” confessed that being able to purchase the “genuine” cocoa spread instead of the retailer’s brand equivalent already felt like a luxury.

Shaming people who are not as privileged as you because of their consumption choices seems more heartless than moral. Accordingly, it is one of the reproaches currently directed at self-styled ethical consumers.

It is worth noting here that the heyday of ethical consumption seems dead and gone. While its popularity peaked in the late nineties with the publication of Naomi Klein’s manifesto “No Logo,” ethical consumption is now often accused of being more of a rich man’s sport than an adequate way of mitigating environmental problems.

Over the past decade, several convincing arguments have been made against so-called ethical shopping. Social thinkers remark that it implies a Manichean division between those who buy well and the supposedly mindless and immoral crowd of mass consumers. However you can be prompted to buy “unethical” products for ethical reasons – trying to make your children happy, for example.

Supporters of degrowth lament that ethical consumption is not going to solve the issue of overconsumption. According to them, focusing on improving the quality of products is not likely to reduce the quantity of goods produced. It will only foster the development of niche markets, for example fairtrade coffee, in the general system of mass consumption.

Worse, because the agri-food industry is a highly concentrated business, your ethical goods are probably sold for the benefit of the large transnational firms that are also crafting “regular” products. In 2013, Oxfam deemed that paradoxical solution “the illusion of choice”.

Changing your consumption patterns and choosing products adorned with ethical labels can feel like “voting with your wallet” and giving your money to actors who behave more sustainably and reasonably. Despite this, the multiplication of brands is in fact the mere result of marketing strategies, and is not reflective of an actual increase of the numbers of food producers. Whether you buy ethical products or regular goods, your money might very well be directed towards the same groups and shareholders.

The principal fault of ethical consumption is that it encourages an automatised and highly individualistic approach to environmental matters, whereas it is now strongly established that there is no point in tackling these issues if not on a global and systematic basis.

Ethical consumption sustains the dangerous illusion that simple, daily, eco-friendly habits are sufficient to deal with the ecological emergency we are now facing. Unfortunately, fighting climate change and environmental catastrophes will take more than buying hemp clothes and not letting the tap water run when you brush your teeth.

Ironically, defending ethical shopping and other individual changes in habits might even be counterproductive. If you are told that you are doing enough, the odds are that you are not going to do more. Because you have carefully sorted your domestic waste, you will not necessarily feel the need to check if they are actually going to be recycled. Because you have wisely spent your cash on fairtrade and eco-friendly products, you will not necessarily feel the need to give time and money to support environmental charities — through your shopping, you have already done your part.

The danger of ethical consumption is to have us convinced that there is a painless and easy way out of continuous environmental degradation. In the end, it might even be an impediment to the rise of a much-needed social and environmental grassroots movement. If you want to act for Earth’s sake, “voting with your wallet” is not enough and concrete political action, such as lobbying, must be pursued outside the private sphere.

Our world is burdened with too many consumers, be they ethical or not. If we wish to change it, we should start behaving like citizens.