When I was growing up, my parents drank ‘Campaign Coffee.’ Its
name was always accompanied by a slight shudder because it was
quite expensive and pretty foul. Heroically purchased by a
committed clique of clergy, aid workers, and the ‘loony left,’ it
was one of the first attempts at trading with developing countries
in a way that was less exploitative.
Things have changed. ‘Ethical’ shopping is all the rage.
Consuming with a conscience-once seen as the preserve of
beardy-weirdy tree-hugging freaks and barely registering on the
radar of corporate execs and politicians-has burst noisily into the
mainstream. You can now buy a more socially or environmentally
responsible version of just about anything.
Green shopping websites abound. Ethical consumer guides are
dropping out of the most surprising magazines. Fair trade coffee
tastes good these days, there’s an abundance of brands to choose
from, and you can drink it in Starbucks in 23 different
In recent years, NestlŽ launched a fair trade coffee line,
longtime animal tester L’Oreal (partly owned by Nestle) bought the
Body Shop, and pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap pioneer Wal-Mart
announced that it is switching much of its fruit and veggies to
Even eBay is setting up a special ‘artisans’ site’ for fair
trade producers. Welcome to the moral mainstream!
The so-called ‘ethical consumerism’ phenomenon is nothing new,
but we seem to have reached a tipping point. Although ‘ethical’
sales still account for only a tiny part of the global economy,
analysts and companies firmly believe that the future of retail
will be green and are rebranding and repositioning themselves
But though sustainable shopping is becoming big business, we
shouldn’t pop the organic champagne corks just yet.
For a start, we should be wary of the claims being made. Irish
rocker Bono recently pontificated: ‘Shopping is politics. You vote
every time you spend money.’ The view that you can spend your way
to a sustainable world is echoed in much of the ethical shopping
sector’s marketing. New Consumer, which purports to be the
‘ultimate ethical lifestyle magazine,’ enthuses that ‘creating a
world that works for everyone has never been easier. It lies in
your simple shopping decisions and lifestyle habits!’ It would be
great if this were true, but it isn’t.
The problem with the concept of ‘ethical consumerism’ is that
it’s something of an oxymoron. The definition of consume is ‘to
destroy by or like fire or disease: to cause to vanish.’ A consumer
is ‘a person who squanders, destroys, or uses up.’ And consumerism
is indeed destroying the planet.
We need to change the entire structure of our exploitative,
wasteful, resource-intensive economy, and that includes buying much
less stuff. Of course, purchasing more sustainable versions of the
things we actually need has to form part of the solution. No one’s
arguing against low-energy lightbulbs.
But so much of the ethical consumption boom focuses on luxury
goods: fair trade roses grown in huge hothouses next to Kenya’s
Lake Naivasha, sucking up precious water resources and then being
air-freighted to British supermarkets; pointless gadgets such as
solar-powered cappuccino whisks; silver cuff links handmade in
Mexico, screaming ‘gilt without the guilt.’ Their main impact is to
make shoppers feel good-I’m doing something for the planet!-without
having to change their lifestyle one bit.
If we get seduced by the idea that the market will respond to
our ethical and environmental concerns, adapt accordingly, and the
woes of the world will be solved, then we are making a huge
mistake. This ignores the central role governments must play in
ending unsustainable patterns of consumption. Surely an important
tool in curbing corporate abuse is to regulate against it.
Governments can use taxes and other economic instruments to reshape
economies and control markets, and can introduce and enforce
ethical and environmental standards. Trade will not be made fair,
paradoxically, by buying fair trade. Governments must engage with
changing the international rules that regulate it. None of these
things are easily done, and we won’t achieve them by going
Perhaps an even bigger mistake is not to face up to the scale of
change that’s required. Surviving the multiple impending
catastrophes that our throwaway lifestyle has triggered will
involve a seismic shift in the way we live. We must move away from
limitless consumer-driven growth and toward a sustainable,
low-carbon model. Sometimes our most ethical shopping choice will
be to buy nothing.
We should not be obsessed by whether we as individuals are
consuming as ethically as possible. It’s important and rewarding to
do what we can, but moral purity is an impossible dream in such an
imperfect world. As Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation
puts it: ‘Ethical consumerism is mood music, rather than a
reengineering of the economy in a meaningful way.’
Ethical consumerism offers attractively simple answers when
these do not exist. Buying a different brand of detergent is easy.
Effecting social change is hard.
This rise in ethical concerns is a huge opportunity, showing
that more and more people are willing to act on the most pressing
issues facing the planet. The challenge now is to find a way to
harness and channel all this energy into something more ambitious
than getting fair trade kumquats onto the world’s supermarket
Excerpted from New Internationalist (Nov. 2006).
Subscriptions: $44/yr. (11 issues) from Box 819, Markham, ON L3P
8A2, Canada; www.newint.org.