For the last couple of decades, topics like climate change, sweatshop labour and animal abuse have become hot-button issues in North America. In the 1990’s, stories emerged of billion dollar corporations like Nike, Apple, Nestle and Wal-Mart forcing workers to manufacture their products in sweatshops, terrifying consumers who hitherto had no knowledge of working conditions in the so-called “third world.” Additionally, information began to circulate on the truth about factory pollution and human-caused climate change, which for the first time made it a concern of those other than just scientists.
As a result, some people, particularly those with higher incomes, began to advocate for what is called “ethical consumption”: the idea that if each of us, as individuals, choose to “vote with our dollar”, then due to the laws of supply and demand, capitalism will in time stop exploiting people and the environment. New markets were created for goods that were “sustainable”, “fair-trade”, “organic”, “eco-friendly”, and so on. Some even went so far as to refer to this new movement as “compassionate capitalism”, declaring that it would end the ills of capitalism while leaving the market system in place.
It is now 2018. People have “gone green”, eaten vegan, shopped “fair-trade”, and recycled for years now. Yet the atrocities that spurned the ethical consumption movement continue unabated. The working class produces enough food for two worlds, but there are still millions of children who die of malnutrition every year. That’s over 20,000 a day. The so-called “compassionate capitalists” who swore to end hunger only donate 1.08% of their enormous profits toward alleviating poverty and hunger – and to no significant effect. Three billion people live in poverty worldwide, while just five people own as much wealth as 50% of the world’s population. Human-caused climate change has reached catastrophic levels, with many scientists warning that we are nearing the point of no return. However, it is not individual consumers that are to blame. Statistics show that the richest 10% are responsible for 59% of the world’s private greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest 50% are responsible for only 10%.
Additionally, research done during a 2012 study at the Corvinus University of Budapest found that there is “no significant difference” between the carbon footprint of those who consume “ethically” and those who do not. The study concluded that targeting consumer purchasing cannot counter the impact of the pollution caused by major corporations. The study also showed that working class people cannot afford a “sustainable lifestyle” due to poverty, lack of accessibility and long working hours, among other things. Many of these workers are unhappy about these circumstances, but find the system rigged against them. Ultimately, “going green” is more expensive, but makes no real difference in the carbon footprint of consumers. Workers spend more, the ruling class rakes in the profits, and global pollution rises as before because corporate and industrial pollution continues as before.
In truth, it does not matter if every human were able to go vegan, buy fair-trade or bike to work. These individual based solutions may make the consumer feel better about living under capitalism, but do they really address the root cause of exploitation and environmental destruction? Does it really matter if people refuse to use plastic bags, when British Petroleum (BP), to take one well known example, can dwarf these efforts by dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, completely obliterating all aquatic life in the region, and only suffer modest consequences?
Not only will it never be possible for everyone to make “environmentally friendly” choices due to systemic economic and social inequality, under capitalism the desire to do so by many working class people has been made into a commodity for the capitalists to profit from. For example, so-called “ethical” products are often more expensive than products created “unethically” and the profits often go to the same major corporations who are doing the majority of polluting. By the confused logic of ethical consumption, impoverished working class consumers are to blame for environmental destruction and exploitation, and not the exploiters themselves. It is ridiculous to think that workers who cannot afford more expensive “fair-trade” items are “voting” for slave labour, environmental catastrophe or the devastation of drinking water, while those who choose to buy “ethically” are voting for cleaner air, fair pay and well-treated animals. As long as the majority of wealth and resources are owned and controlled by a minority exploiting class, producing for profit instead of human need, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability will always suffer. The choices of individual consumers are ineffectual within the context of capitalist production.
The major flaw in “ethical consumption” is the illusion that there is a more ethical option under capitalism, i.e. the idea that if we pay a few dollars more at Whole Foods, we can achieve a more compassionate capitalism; a capitalism where what is the most profitable is also the most moral. “Ethical consumption” suggests that production for profit is acceptable, as long as it comes from a more kind and gentle version of capitalism which treats its workers nicely and cares about the environment. The idea of ethical profit is an oxymoron, considering that all profit is the unpaid wages of the working class, privately appropriated and hoarded by the ruling capitalist class. Additionally, the logic of production for profit and competition on the market means the capitalists must always try and lower their costs of production by squeezing more out of the workers and cutting corners on workplace safety and environmental sustainability. Ethical consumerism, by putting the blame on individual consumers (i.e. the working class), absolves the ruling class of any responsibility for its despicable treatment of workers, animals, and the environment.
Ethical consumerism ends up dividing the working class by implying that those who purchase “ethically” are more moral than those who do not, regardless of their means of doing so. This, however, is not true. Very few people support the cruel actions going on inside factory farms. Very few people agree that the Amazon rainforest should be clear-cut to make way for factory farms and slaughterhouses. Whether they possess means to purchase “ethical” products is an entirely separate question. Capitalism has effectively co-opted the idea of ethical choices, and uses it to hide the inarguable cruelty inherent to the profit motive.
It does not matter how many people turn to more “ethical” options under capitalism. The system will never be ethical. Exploitation, oppression and environmental destruction are inherent to a system based on private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. The answer to this question is not to be found in the individualistic approach of ethical consumption, but rather through organizing all layers of the working class in a united struggle against capitalism, which is the root of all modern exploitation and misery. The answer to the question of ethical consumption can only be found under socialism – a truly democratic economic system with a rationally planned economy that meets the needs of the majority. Rather than feeding the greed of a parasitic minority, a socialist system run by and for the working class will prioritize the needs of society and the planet, allowing the immense resources on planet earth to be utilized sustainably in the interests of the majority and future generations.