Buying green: is ethical consumerism a perfect distraction?

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Posted Jan 25 2018 by Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org
By Christopher DOMBRES (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eco-consumption, ethical consumerism, sustainable shopping. Call it what we may, “buying green” has grown into something of a hot topic in the last decade. But is it the sustainable solution some claim it to be or is it in fact the perfect distraction? Lowimpact.org’s Sophie Paterson explores.

As some readers may remember from an earlier post of mine, I’m an advocate of downshifting. Which ultimately means that, save for food and essentials, these days I don’t really do shopping. Or at least not in the sense that many of my Generation Y friends and peers seem to do. In fact, over the past five years I’ve developed something of an aversion to shopping centres, supermarkets and mega online retailers. They tend to fill me with a mild sense of dread whenever I’m forced to encounter them.

As a rule, I nowadays buy things only when strictly needed, a recent example being the replacement of 16 year old wellington boots which had lasted over half my current lifetime. Clearly my feet didn’t grow much as a teenager! My wardrobe is a mix of hand-me-downs from family and hand-knitted woollies courtesy of my mum. The few items which aren’t second-hand were purchased anywhere between 5 and 15 years ago.

Shopping, shopping, shopping…

Rewind a decade or so, however, and there was a time when shopping was a much bigger part of my life. Whether it was clothes, food or other household items, I often managed to convince myself that I was contributing to a greater good by making more ethical purchasing decisions. An organic cotton top and bamboo socks from a high-street retailer, organic milk and free-range eggs from a supermarket, second-hand books via Amazon… you get the picture. I was merrily buying away, believing by opting to pay often that little bit more on apparently ‘greener’ options that I was effectively voting via my wallet for sustainability. Even better, shopping became effectively guilt-free, with ethical consumerism a ready-made conscience salver.

I wasn’t alone in putting my faith in ethical consumerism then and certainly wouldn’t be so today, either. A 2017 poll by Good Money Week revealed that 38% of all adults surveyed say they are more or much more ethically conscious in what they buy than ten years ago. Meanwhile, the 2017 Ethical Consumer Market report found that the UK’s ethical market grew by 3.2% in 2016, with sales of ethical goods and services valued at £81.3 billion.

Green spending, big business

Green spending has clearly become big business. And it is in the context of bigger business that doubts over whether purchasing is truly ethical begin to come into play. Take the example of my organic cotton top. Yes, it was made using organic cotton but where was it made and under which conditions? What about the other materials required to produce it?

In his 2014 blog post The revolution will not be bought, political economist Terry Hathaway explained the dangers of a strong belief in ethical consumption further, drawing on what he believes are three main defects.

1. Buying does not equal voting

The first defect is that ethical consumption is akin to voting in a system where many of the desired goods are not available for purchase. You cannot purchase clean air, or reductions in CO2 or increased biodiversity; you can only purchase products that may make a small contribution to such a value relative to other similar products. A consumer may buy a hoover that was made with limited pollution seeking to ensure clean air for instance. However, they will not realise their interest unless everyone else makes similar choices. To realise these public goods requires concerted collective action.

This last sentence I feel makes a valid point, but it is countered by some, such as the Ethical Consumer campaign group in their article listing the top 5 ethical consumption myths (including that ethical consumerism is more expensive). In an ideal world, yes, we would all be united in such efforts and such collective action would yield the desired results. But, alas, this is often not the case and progress is usually slow, as with the current campaign against single-use plastic. So back to Terry we go.

2. Ethical consumption obscures choice

The second defect is that, somewhat paradoxically, ethical consumption also obscures choice. Even the most hyper-vigilant, well-informed shopper cannot know everything – the labour (and conditions), the tools (and the production of these tools), the raw materials (and their extraction), the energy, etc. – that goes into making even the most simple products. Instead, the consumer must buy in partial ignorance of all of the factors, primarily on the basis of those attributes that are the most conspicuous and, to some degree, based on trust (no doubt engendered by advertising) in the retailer and manufacturer/s.

Furthermore, there is a degree of ambiguity in just quite what or who you are voting for by purchasing something that complicates the idea further. For example, buying a Fairtrade Nestle KitKat from an Asda works as support for Fairtrade, support for Nestle, support for the particular product and support for Asda – the consumer is in fact voting for a complex production, distribution and marketing chain of which they know little. A further problem of choice being obscured comes in when ethical consumption involves purchasing products made or distributed by a major multinational corporation with many activities around the world. A consumer may approve of KitKats, Nestle, Asda and Fairtrade, but not be aware of the policies of Asda’s parent, Walmart, or of Nestle’s promotion of baby milk in the third world.

By Christopher DOMBRES (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Christopher Dombres via Wikimedia Commons

3. Opposing values

Terry continues:

Extending this idea further, a consumer’s “vote” for a particular product may support one of the consumer’s values, but it could also equally (and simultaneously) support a value they oppose. So, to return to an above example, shopping at Whole Foods could be construed as support for higher welfare meat and organic agricultural methods, but it will equally support union busting, low wages for workers and right-wing libertarian politics. In short, the personal significance consumers attach to purchasing certain products can translate as a “vote” for a whole host of values they dislike but of which they remain ignorant.

The third defect is that this account of how the market works effectively hides the role of businesses as actors in the marketplace – if consumers are the ones determining the market then corporations are effectively non-actors (or heavily-bounded actors) who do not take decisions in terms of production, marketing and retail in line with their financial bottom line. This discourse thus presents a bizarre inversion of reality, whereby consumers are collectively responsible for corporate decisions, rather than corporations themselves. This fiction facilitates the divisive nature of ethical consumption whereby it is other individuals who are at fault for failing to consume in line with particular values, rather than blaming the corporations who have sought to maximise profit themselves and the system that encourages this behaviour.

I certainly couldn’t have put it better myself.

A “buying green” bandwagon?

Meanwhile, big brands are vying ever harder to capture the ethical marketplace, as evidenced by this statement in Nielsen’s 2015 Global Sustainability Report. When it comes to corporations reaching consumers who care:

… [d]emonstrating commitment to sustainability has become a basic cost of entry. Regardless of their degree of commitment, companies across the globe are finding ways to leverage sustainability as part of their marketing strategy.

And such green-washing marketing strategies have their sights firmly set on Generations Y and Z, those in their late teens to mid-thirties. According to the same report:

Despite the fact that Millennials are coming of age in one of the most difficult economic climates in the past 100 years, they continue to be most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — almost three-out-of-four respondents in the latest findings, up from approximately half in 2014. The rise in the percentage of respondents under 20, also known as Generation Z, who are willing to pay more was equally strong—from 55% of total respondents in 2014 to 72% in 2015. Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power-spending Millennials of tomorrow, too.

Seeking to capitalise on the move towards ethical consumerism, take-overs and buy-outs of smaller ethically-minded companies by corporate giants are becoming increasingly common. In 2017, Method and Ecover, companies producing non-toxic plant-based cleaning products, were snapped up by SC Johnson, whilst the organic tea company Pukka was bought by Unilever. You can find details of these and many other examples on the Ethical Consumer website.

Is, then, ethical consumerism a perfect distraction, both for (a) the multinationals seeking to exploit it whilst sweeping other less than sustainable practices under the carpet and (b) consumers seeking ease of conscience whilst continuing to shop like there’s no tomorrow? The answer for me is only if we let it be. It seems evident where the priorities of big business lie when it comes to green spending. So where to put your money and your mouth instead?

The alternative: local, non-corporate or not at all

To be clear, I know that we all have to buy things from time to time and I’m not advocating a complete abandonment of efforts to shop more ethically – far from it. However, these are increasingly difficult waters to navigate and the need for careful discernment is becoming more and more apparent. Knowledge is power.

The good news is that there are are lots of resources out there to help. The Ethical Consumer website is a good place to start, as well as Lowimpact.org’s directory of independent businesses and introduction to low-impact shopping. Keeping things simple, I find it useful to stick to these three guidelines as far as I can.

Firstly, shop local. This is something 42% of us already do, to the tune of £2.7 billion in 2017 according to the Ethical Consumer report. Secondly, shop non-corporate. You can explore what this means and why you should consider it here and here but think co-ops, community-supported agriculture, credit unions and more. Finally, the golden rule I would advocate above all others is to be honest with yourself and never forget to ask: “Do I really need this?”

To that end, I leave you with this diagram, courtesy of author Cait Flandersto help you decide whether, in fact, the answer might more often than not be no.

Buying green can mean not buying at all according to this flowchart

Image courtesy of Cait Flanders.


About the author

Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.