Is there true ethical consumption under capitalism?
Over the last few decades, concerns such as sweatshop labor, animal abuse, and pollution have gained traction as pressing issues in the United States. News of billion-dollar corporations such as Walmart and Apple manufacturing their products in sweatshops under horrible conditions, with below minimum wage salaries began to circulate, scaring masses of consumers who were unaware of these working conditions. Climate change has also become a dire matter, as consumers have come to realize the ways in which they contribute to the issue.
Consequently, those with a particularly high income began to advocate for “ethical consumption”. Ethical consumption is an idea based on the concept of dollar voting; as individuals, if we choose to buy ethically-made products, and the laws of supply and dictate that eventually capitalism will stop exploiting people and the environment they live in. The problem with this is that it does not take into consideration the workers in a capitalist society who have no choice but to be complicit in the ethical faults of consumerism that conveniently end up filling the pockets of elites that can afford to not only indulge in ethical consumerism but have a clean conscious while doing it.
For years now, people have made efforts to eat vegan, recycle, and shop fair trade. Despite this, the horrors that started the ethical consumerism movement continue to occur. Human-caused climate change has reached a point that many scientists believe is close to the point of no return. The working class produces enough food for 10 billion people yet world hunger remains prevalent despite the surplus. 689 million people live in poverty worldwide, yet just 5 people own wealth equivalent to 50% of the world’s population These are just a few examples of the lasting inequalities that remain despite the efforts being made to create a more sustainable and ethical society. Society pressures consumers to buy ethically but those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds simply cannot afford to do so due to factors such as poverty and lack of accessibility. This pressure creates a divide within the working class. While these workers are unhappy with these conditions, they find that a sustainable lifestyle is not within their abilities to take part in.
The clear flaw of ethical consumerism is the idea that there is a more ethical option within capitalism. It is the idea that with this movement, people can achieve a system of capitalism that is both profitable and moral. Inspecting how profit works, one will find that ethical profit is an oxymoron because profit is all the unpaid wages of the working class hoarded by the ruling, capitalist class. The logic behind the competition on the market is that capitalists will continue to cut corners, including the jeopardization of the safety of their workers, in order to make the most profit. By putting the responsibility on the working class, ethical consumerism inadvertently absolves the ruling class of its own faults. Capitalism successfully co-opts the idea of ethical consumption and disguises its cruelties used to gain profit.
Oppression, exploitation, and environmental destruction ensures that there is no truly ethical option under capitalism. This does not mean that people should not buy free-range eggs, ride a bike instead of using a car, or refuse to buy from these billion-dollar corporations. It means these are small steps in an issue that is greater than an individual can try to remedy. The answer to this issue lies not within the individual, but restructuring the entire system itself.
Cover Image: “Ethical consumerism” by edmittance is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0