Ethical consumerism is the intentional and informed purchase of products and services that a customer considers to have been produced without causing harm to the environment or exploitation of humans and/or animals. Consumers practice this through ‘positive buying’ in that ethical products are favoured, or by ‘negative purchasing’, i.e. through boycotting those products which they deem unethical.
And it has been around for a long time. Many Americans protested against the Stamp Act of 1756 by refusing to buy tea and other British goods. Closer home, the Khadi Movement saw the popularisation of Indian handloom during the British Raj, a protest initiated by Mahatma Gandhi. These protests are not unlike the more recently propagated MAGA (Make America Great Again) and Make-In-India campaigns to influence consumers to buy and support local produce.
Two of the biggest market sectors to be effected by this new wave of consumers are the fashion and food sectors. The ‘image conscious’ millennial consumer is more concerned about ‘appearing’ to make ethical choices than actually making them.
Take into account the Starbucks straw-ban. Deeply influenced by the imagery of plastic-afflicted sea turtles, the “aware” Starbucks customers decided to shun the coffee maker for its use of plastic straws. To protect its reputation, the multinational chain declared to go straw-less by 2020. On the surface, this may be seen as a win for the consumers, forcing a company to take sustainable steps; however, in reality it accomplished the exact opposite. The new cup lid now requires even more plastic and is harder to recycle than professed by the company.
Palm oil is not just a processed-food ingredient, but is also found in multiple cosmetic products, such as lipsticks and soaps. Consequently, due to its popularity and worldwide skyrocketing demands, farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia, where about 85% of the world’s palm oil is cultivated, are cutting down rainforests to establish palm oil plantations instead, leading to the destruction of rainforests. Natives are being displaced for such plantations, and once functioning, these plantations are known to violate their workers’ human rights. To top it off, the biodiversity of these forests are being compromised, and orangutans and other species are becoming increasingly endangered because of the deforestation.
In May 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) raised concerns over the use of palm oil in processed foods, warning that contaminants found in the oil’s edible form are carcinogenic. It warned that even moderate consumption of the substances represented a risk to children and that, due to a lack of definitive data, no level could be considered safe.
Nutella, a popular hazelnut spread, had listed palm oil as its second core ingredient, after sugar. Several retailers in Italy, including the country’s biggest supermarket chain, Coop, boycotted the spread as a precaution.
Facing the brunt of consumer backlash, Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, had to launch advertising and marketing campaigns to reassure its consumers.
Money is also a deciding factor. Studies show that consumers are not willing to shell out more for sustainable fashion and would rather pay more for style, quality and fashion that gives them value for money. If conventional products are being deeply discounted, it interferes with people’s desire to do the right thing.
Consumer surveys about retail purchases and sustainability are, more often than not, misleading. Consumers answer to meet social desirability and acceptance; they want to appear green even if they mainly care about price, status and looks. Fashion is an emotional decision, not a rational one. Hence the quick popularity of ‘fast fashion’. It is easily the more affordable choice, but it comes at a cost. The sweatshops’ labour, which manufactures for these outlets, is paid a measly amount and made to work under inhumane conditions.
Whenever aspects of sustainability and looks are weighed consciously against each other, ethical aspects usually come last. An astonishing number of people are not interested in taking ethics into consideration when making fashion purchases. Clearly, a disconnect exists between what clothing consumers want and what they actually buy.
There is simply no data showing that consumers put their money where their mouth is. For instance, data shows that most millennials and Gen-Z rank everything else over sustainability, such as ease of purchase, affordability, uniqueness and the associated brand name. While 60 percent of millennials are interested in sustainable clothing, only 30 percent say they have actually purchased it; and how many actually do so in reality is questionable.
Robert Reich, former US Labor Secretary, wrote in his book Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life that, “There is a difference between the private wants of a consumer and the public ideals of a citizen.”
It is not just the B2C model that is exhibiting the signs of the growing awareness about ethics. The consumer’s apparent demand for morality and transparency from businesses is leading them to make choices depending on more factors than just money.
Netflix, the online streaming giant, has said it will rethink its production investments in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, if the anti-abortion bill is passed. Netflix has filmed series like “Stranger Things” in the state of Georgia, which is a popular place to film movies and TV shows because of the tax breaks offered by the state. In 2018, 455 TV and Film projects were completed in Georgia, adding about $9.5 billion to the economy, according to state officials.
We have come a long way from the aisle of the store, expanding out to see the bigger picture, being aware of how companies source their products and how many life forms and the environment are affected by the choices we make in the market place. And we have longer to go still; it’s a mixed-bag, not all despair. Even with giant corporations and government influences on the way our market runs, we should not underestimate the power and responsibility vested in us as consumers.