Ethical Consumerism is the idea that consumers can, and should, act out a range of ethical values and principles and seek any of a range of ethical objectives through how they spend their money in the market. It generally implies that purchasing decisions are a way of putting values into action.
In practice, the range of behaviours that fall under the heading of ethical consumerism is large. On one hand, it can mean making purchasing decisions based on ethical standards relating to the way in which a given product is produced: it might mean, for example, refusing to buy from companies that treat their employees in ways that the consumer takes to be unethical, or from companies that engage in unethical advertising practices. On the other hand, it can mean making purchasing decisions based on what the consumer takes the seller’s own ethical or political values to be: for example, refusing to buy from a store the owner of which campaigned for a politician whom the consumer dislikes.
One key type of ethical consumerism is ethical investing, which is the act of investing (buying or consuming investments) based on ethical criteria. Investment funds that are set up to facilitate this may, for example, avoid investing in so-called “sin industries,” such as alcohol, tobacco, pornography, and firearms.
One particularly pointed form of ethical consumerism is the ethics-based boycott. A boycott involves intentionally avoiding dealing with a particular business, typically on ethical grounds, and encouraging other people to do the same.
There are two key criticisms of ethical consumerism: one practical, the other ethical.
The practical concern involves the difficulty that consumers face in finding and acting on the relevant information. In most cases, consumers know relatively little about how the products they buy were produced, or about the values of the individuals or companies the produced them. This is even more difficult given the complexity of modern global supply chains. Two relatively recent innovations go some distance to remedying this problem. One is product labelling and certification: some products are labelled in ways that indicate that they were produced in line with certain ethical values. Apples may be labeled “Organic,” for instance; paper might be labeled “100% Recycled;” canned tuna might be “Dolphin Friendly.” The other relevant innovation involves various ethical rankings of corporations, such as Corporate Knights’ “Global 100Most Sustainable Corporations” or Forbes magazine’s list of “The World’s Most Ethical Companies.”
One ethical concern regarding ethical consumerism is closely related to the practical concern: if the relevant information is not accurate, then ethics-based purchasing may be counter-productive. Boycotts, for example, may tend to punish the wrong people: for example, deciding not to vacation in a particular state because you don’t like the policies set by that state’s political leaders may do substantial harm to innocent parties in the travel industry, without having any impact at all on the political leaders involved. The other ethical concern has to do with the particular values that consumers act upon. Not all values are positive ones. A racist, for example, who refuses to buy from a store that employs visible minorities is acting on her values, but they are not ethically-good values.
See also in CEBE:
- “Is Ethical Consumerism an Impermissible Form of Vigilantism?” by Waheed Hussain, Philosophy & Public Affairs
- “Is a Market for Values a Value in Markets?” by Alexei Marcoux [PDF], Reason Papers.
- “If the Price is Right, Do Values Matter?” by Chris MacDonald for The Business Ethics Blog.