Buying green: is ethical consumerism a perfect distraction?
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.
3. Opposing values
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 Flanders, to help you decide whether, in fact, the answer might more often than not be no.
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.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Dave Darby January 25th, 2018
Yes, the fact that millions of ‘greenies’ pour into Whole Foods Market to make Amazon even richer is very sad. Slap an organic or recycled label on something and people get it. It’s easy. The political argument against corporate giants like Amazon is more difficult, and it’s the next big challenge. I think it’s winnable if we make the arguments well. After all, when I was a kid back in the stone age, no-one knew or cared about the environment, and no-one made shopping decisions based on sustainability. A significant percentage do now, which is why I’m (at least slightly) optimistic that people will come to reject the corporate sector in the same way that a significant number of people now reject (say) battery eggs. If we can build a solidarity economy to challenge the corporate sector, I don’t think it will stop growing, because the benefits will be obvious.
Plus, the only way that Unilever could have been prevented from buying Ben & Jerry’s, or Cadbury/Mondelez from buying Green & Blacks, or L’Oreal from buying the Body Shop etc. is if those companies had been set up as co-operatives in the first place (which, if their founders had been truly ethical, they would have). A democratic structure and a committed membership would have stopped takeovers at any price. But ethics can disappear (or change) very quickly if an owner or group of majority shareholders have millions of pounds waved in front of them. We need to learn not to trust multi-millionaires (and in some cases, billionaires) claiming to be running ethical companies.
2Sophie Paterson January 25th, 2018
I couldn’t agree more, Dave. The history of Ecover and method is a case in point in terms of the transition from small company to multinational ownership, throwing in a B-corp for good measure along the way, in the form of People Against Dirty. Ecover was founded as a small company in Belgium in 1979, method came in 2001 in San Francisco. Ecover bought method in 2012 but at this point it had already made the shift to the world of B-corps under People Against Dirty. Things were murky before this when it came to tax issues, too. In 2015, Ethical Consumer stated that: “According to the Ecover (UK) Limited 2015 accounts, Skagen Conscience Captial Limited is the largest group into which these financial statements are consolidated… Skagen Conscience Captial Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Skagen Holdings Limited, a company incorporated in Guernsey. As the parent company was incorporated in a tax haven, it received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely tax avoidance strategies.” So yes, we need co-ops all the way!
3coppicelearner January 25th, 2018
That is a really useful and thought provoking article – Thank you. I broke my wrist 6 weeks ago and have been unable to drive. Since there are no shops within walking distance (I live in the middle of nowhere in rural SW Wales) I have been reliant on friends to take me shopping and in the interests of everyone’s sanity have resorted to using supermarkets – then been shocked at how low the bill is! On non-food needs I find it really difficult to make good choices given the limitations of an infra-structure system that is geared to consumerism and the ubiquity and monopoly of mega-companies.
4John Harrison - Allotment Gardening January 25th, 2018
Online buying is so easy – nothing is more than a few clicks away. Too easy. My own control (love your flowchart) is delay. Example – my camera is a bit cumbersome so a compact, fit in the pocket, camera would be helpful in that I’ll take more photo’s (for the blog etc.) and easier when travelling. There’s a nice one that looks ideal for just £69. I’ll now leave it for a week. If I still want it then I’ll buy it but chances are I’ll realise I don’t really need it.
Advertising is seductive – but I don’t go all the way on a first date ?
5Amanda H January 25th, 2018
What a great article …. despite being a 99.99% independent shopper (in all meanings of the two words) I like the awareness that is being brought to bare here … may all those falsely comforted happy shoppers read your article! Thats not to poo poo their excitement at discovering new ways of doing things however and maybe everyone has their place, I dont know. But as an independent trader myself i shop ONLY with independents bar one wretched ingredient that I cant get anywhere else without reducing quality. I have the benefit of an independent fuel station (yes i know where they buy from however) and am changing to Triodas bank …. I am stuck with Santander for my mortgage for now …. I encourage awareness amongst all my friends and customers and many conversations prevail …. the more we change … the more we can change … its a path to somewhere! However, I wouldnt call the shoppers at Wholefoods ‘greenies’ Dave! Maybe ‘aspiring greenies’ so as not to upset the real greenies who wouldnt be seen in Wholefoods etc. I have been pulled up for my ‘no-corporations’ policy (at home and with my business) as there are a few corporations out there who are doing a great job of challenging that structure … I think it was a hot topic here some time back. It was great. I am dismayed at how many fellow Independent traders drop by to chat to me with their free Waitrose coffee in hand as they pass our local ‘much better coffee’ shop on the way. I get this huge urge to grab it and throw it across the road ….. but maybe thats not ethical! Keep it local, know where your money goes if you spend it …. and try to like where it goes and the people it goes to! For example I LOVE paying my monthly veg bill to our local organic farm ;-)))), couldnt give money to better folks, couldnt get better veg. I ‘ve never spent less, tasted more nor had so much fun since i gave up corporations. Have a great day.
ps Amazon truely sucks … I mean … thats advertising for you!! The front hides the back with these organisations.
6Dave Darby January 25th, 2018
I like your attitude. It’s what we intend to promote.
(it’s why I put ‘greenies’ in inverted commas)
(we just switched our mortgage to the Nationwide – mutually-owned, 100% reserve building society).
7Dave Darby January 25th, 2018
No camera in your phone?
8Dave Darby January 25th, 2018
There are people building an alternative infrastructure – really good people. We intend to spotlight them on this site and a new one that a group of us are building / launching soon. Keep up the good work.
9Sophie Paterson January 25th, 2018
Thanks for your comment, it’s really good to know you found it useful. The discrepancy you’ve experienced between the costs of your usual and supermarket shop reminds me of an earlier post by Dave Darby at https://www.lowimpact.org/how-much-should-a-loaf-of-bread-cost/. It tackles this issue really well. In the meantime, it’s great to hear your friends are rallying round and I hope your wrist heals well and soon!
10Sophie Paterson January 25th, 2018
A wise approach, John! Thanks for sharing. On the issue of a few clicks, I recently learnt that Amazon in fact patented their ‘one-click’ buying solution (https://digiday.com/marketing/end-era-amazons-one-click-buying-patent-finally-expires/). The patent recently expired so we can expect to soon see a lot more one-click buying options across the board. Impulse buying has never been easier, it seems.
11Sophie Paterson January 25th, 2018
Thanks, Amanda, and keep up the good work. Good to hear that, contrary to what many may automatically assume, it is possible to spend less by buying non-corporate, too. The more people actively doing and promoting this the better. And on the subject of Amazon, I absolutely agree. Nothing fills me with more dread than their new Amazon Go venture in Seattle. Not forgetting their bricks and mortar book shop in New York City, that is: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/amazons-brick-and-mortar-bookstores-are-not-built-for-people-who-actually-read.
12John Harrison - Allotment Gardening January 25th, 2018
My phone cost £10.00 – it will send a text or call. It even tells the time, has a phone book and a game. I topped it up about 18 months ago with £10.00 and there’s still £8.59 on it. I have no desire to join the zombies shuffling around muttering to the air and pressing buttons as if their life depended on it. ? We only take the phone out if going on a long journey – last time it was used was outside a hospital when someone died (telling relatives)
I honestly do not want a ‘smartphone’ – smarter the phone, dumber the owner in my opinion. I’ve seen couples in cafes both on the phones – wonder why they can’t talk to each other. Adverts saying ‘only £30 a month’ – odd they don’t say £360 a year. Yep, I am not normal.
13John Harrison - Allotment Gardening January 25th, 2018
Thanks Sophie, it works for me. Another trick (as in psychological self-control) I use is when buying on Ebay. I decide the price something is worth and then put the bid on via a free sniper system called Gixen. That way I’m not tempted to go over just because someone else wants it, Sometimes I win, sometimes not but I don’t over-spend. (I’ve been collecting historical leaflets for a new book)
14Dave Darby January 25th, 2018
I’ve recently succumbed (because I wanted a camera, that my non-smart phone didn’t have). But I won’t be getting online – I just don’t need it. I can do that on the laptop at home, and I don’t need to check my emails when I’m out. For (most of) this generation though, it seems essential to be online all the time. They all seem to be queueing up for Brave New World, not that they know what that is, because they don’t read books.
15John Harrison - Allotment Gardening January 26th, 2018
Neither did they read 1984 .. but then again why should they? They’re living it. The really scary concept there wasn’t being watched or living in fear of the secret police, it was the concept of so changing the language that thought crime would become impossible.
16Eloise Sentito January 27th, 2018
Totally with yous on greenwashing, the suspicion of corporates, and the great and increasingly fruitful quests for alternatives…
17Gardda February 9th, 2018
You say they are living 1984 but actually it is 2018 and far, far worse. Breeding clone people for organ transplant in their 20s is surely one of the most grotesque features of modern human life that could possibly exist?
18Charles February 10th, 2018
Dave you are doing a very wonderful job. We are looking forward to working with you. So, keep up the standards.