Politicising Consumption: The Ethical Consumer

“Ultimately everyone thinks about themselves I think and it saves you money, affects your local environment, you go for it, but it’s very hard to see the effects of fair trade; you don’t know . . . They are all selfish acts really, ultimately, because you’re doing something to make you feel better, even you said didn’t you that you felt better for it. That is a kind of selfish act isn’t it? You make yourself feel happy about an issue.”

(Barnett et al. 2011 pg. 135)

This text is taken from the book, Globalizing Responsibility, and is a quote from one of the interviews set up by the authors to tackle ethical consumption. One of the authors is my supervisor, and I went to a seminar that he run last week, in which he discussed his findings.

This quote really jumped out at me because I found myself feeling quite defensive about what the participant was saying. Is ethical consumption a selfish act? ALL of it selfish, as the subject states? I don’t think anyone can deny that making ethical choices makes you feel good, but I would argue that when I make ethical choices it is less to make me feel good, and more to not make me feel bad. I would argue that there is a difference. I know I feel guilty when I don’t make the ethical choice, so I guess that it is still a selfish decision because I don’t enjoy feeling guilty.

But there is also the political stance behind my decisions, because by making an ethical purchase, I feel like I am making a point. I want to show the retailers that there is a demand for ethical choices and do my bit for the good of society. It is this political aspect which Barnett et al. focus their study on, looking at the way in which consumption can be a vehicle for political action. Organisations like Ethical Consumer and Traidcraft don’t just want to help individual consumers; they use this link to consumers as a way to influence policy. They generate data sets and use them to get stories into the media, aiming to become involved with global trade policy at the highest level.

A number of studies have proved that consumers find it very difficult to relate to the concept of fair trade, because the producers involved are simply so far away. That said, the majority of people will understand that something marked FAIRTRADE is good. The biggest consumption of Fairtrade actually comes from situations where consumers aren’t given the choice. The Fairtrade cities campaign works by targeting procurement officers in schools, museums and tourist attractions so that all of the products sold to consumers are Fairtrade. This is probably the best way forward as it boosts the demand for Fairtrade and helps to boost the reputation of the organisation. But with consumers struggling to understand the full significance of Fairtrade, the biggest challenge still remains.

Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. and Malpass, A., 2011. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Post to Twitter