food, health, labor, society

In defense of ethical consumerism

This post might be a bit redundant for those who regularly follow my blog (I’ve written about going sweatshop-free and conscious consumption in the past), but ethical consumerism is something that’s been on my mind in recent months. Like “conscious consumption,” “ethical consumerism” doesn’t have a hard definition, but, as the phrase implies, it essentially refers to shopping that is done with ethical considerations in mind. For me, it means first consuming consciously, becoming more aware of what I want to buy and why instead of purchasing mindlessly, then, when I do decide to continue with a purchase (many times I don’t because I realize I’m wanting to spend unnecessarily for dumb reasons), committing to seeking out brands that are not treating their employees like slaves and devastating the environment.

I’ve seen a lot of writers (you can google–I’m not linking any of them) brush off ethical consumerism as silly and ineffective, a luxury generally taken up by wealthy white women who want to feel good about themselves as they shop at Whole Foods for cage-free eggs and paraben-free lotion. I get it. To an extent, it is a luxury. Target sells yoga pants for $15 while prAna, a Fair Trade brand, sells them for $65+. At this point in time, sweatshop-free, cage-free, paraben-free, organic, ethical, eco-friendly, natural, Fair Trade–you name it, anything with a label indicating that the product was made in more ethical working conditions or has a lesser negative impact on the environment–is more expensive. That sucks for sure, but just because some people cannot buy ethically-made products right now doesn’t mean those who can shouldn’t.

At times, I have agreed with those who criticize ethical consumerism. My view of capitalism has vacillated over the years, and at more than one point in time I’ve considered myself Marxist (I do not currently). I subscribed to Adbusters for years (though, perhaps ironically given the subject of this post, stopped when they began selling shoes). I wanted people who give a fuck to revolt, not attempt to achieve change from within and ultimately fail. Capitalism was the enemy. The idea of shopping toward a better world sounded absurd, something that only someone who’d been deluded by “the system” could believe in.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. Whether you like capitalism or not, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. No, I don’t think ethical consumerism will save the world, but it’s part of the puzzle. It’s a start. It’s a push in the right direction. People who want to engage in ethical consumerism are noticing a spark within themselves, an awareness that things aren’t quite right, a desire to change. Instead of blasting them for being only marginally effective in how they react to that spark, I want to encourage them. I want to respond with a “Yes, and” instead of a “No, but” (or, #wellactually) to steal lingo from improv (and twitter).

Shopping consciously is no substitute for voting, volunteering, donating, being politically active, etc., but it is an action that complements those other things. It’s clear cut, easy-to-understand, and does not involve much risk, sacrifice, or difficulty. For some people, it will be a first step toward becoming more aware of and involved in issues related to labor, inequality, public health, and the environment. Instead of criticizing and shutting down people who try to shop ethically, I think it’s better to support them and prompt them to dig deeper into whatever part of them felt motivated to take that step, to encourage them to think about what else they can do to get more involved and have even more of an impact.

Continuing to shop the way we as a society now shop is not only unsustainable, it’s horrible. Our current system is damaging first and foremost to the workers. In many instances, it’s also damaging to the consumers who buy the products and, finally, the earth and those living on it as a whole.

Joke about the culture and tastes of people who buy organic clothing all you want, but know that workers who farm non-organic cotton are dying from cancer caused by the pesticides used on that cotton. There is a difference between the two products and the effect their manufacturing has on those who make them. Joke about Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and clothes, but know that there are still literal slaves in 2016 making items sold in stores all over the United States. If you have a problem with America’s history of slavery, it is only logical that you should have a problem with the current manufacturing industry.

I hate when people pit one social issue against another, which is something that seems to happen quite a bit when ethical consumerism comes up. The general implication is that the same people who put effort into shopping consciously do not put effort into other issues that are perhaps more visible here in the US–issues related to immigration, public health, segregation, police brutality, etc.

I’m not well-versed in feminism (planning on changing that), but I’ve heard enough to know of the term “intersectionality” (very basically, the concept that issues of race, class, and gender are not at odds, but rather intersect) and that I agree with it. I think the same mentality applies here. Again, it’s the “Yes, and” approach. If someone says they want to shop Fair Trade, that’s opening a doorway to help them recognize labor inequality and its effects in the US. It makes sense that anyone with that initial impetus to shop ethically in order to benefit workers in other countries would also care about domestic human rights issues.

If you don’t think there should be slaves making clothing in 2016, you probably also don’t think people should be getting shot in the street because of their skin color, I’d guess. If you don’t believe chickens should be pumped with hormones, smashed into crowded cages, and kept so fat they can’t walk, you probably also don’t think humans of skin colors different than yours should lack access to clean drinking water and adequate healthcare.

Corporations hold massive amounts of power. They spend massive amounts of money trying to get consumers’ attention. If enough people take their attention (and money) away from a company, that company will listen and begin to change. At this point, I’ve lost hope that the government will, on its own, require trade agreements to adhere to US labor or environmental standards. A multi-pronged approach is needed. Consumer action is a powerful tool, an important prong.

Right now, clothing, beauty products, and food items are those that are the easiest to research and find more ethical versions of. It’s not that hard to find organic food or jeans, Fair Trade chocolate or lipstick. Good luck, however, finding a sweatshop-free laptop, or Fair Trade car. (Spoiler: they don’t exist.) Since the clothing, beauty, and food industries are the ones beginning to undergo change, those are the areas in which I will focus. If you have any insights (additional information or constructive criticism only, please), I encourage you to share them.

Honestly, at times I feel very helpless and overwhelmed. Our world is full of violence, human rights violations, and inequality, much of which appears to be the direct result of consumerism, greed, and our current manufacturing system. I know that, at heart, most people do not want these horrible things to be happening, and they turn away from them, ignore them, because it’s easier than acknowledging that their own lifestyles and behavior is contributing to them. As a writer, I want to research and share clear, direct actions that I and others can take. Ethical consumerism is one of those actions.

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