Not so ethical: The exclusionary nature of ‘moral’ consumerism.

A. k. a. Why you can shove your ethical consumerism up your left nostril sideways.

There is a summary at the end of this post for anyone who struggles with the full text.

For a while now I’ve wanted to write on ethics in consumerism and in particular how those ethics are out of reach to those on lower incomes or in a number of different circumstances. How boycotts are not always practical and how, if you look at ethical consumerism with an intersectional approach you find financial or other forms of privilege are at the heart of it as a movement which is increasingly exclusionary the further down the lines of economic inequality you go.

I’ve tried to write on this before in an essay of a similar title, ‘Not So Ethical‘ but I never felt I really managed to get across the problems that I had with people who tout this and judge others for not doing so. There’s little understanding to the financial and practical barriers it can present to a good number of people.

For example an unemployed single mother is unlikely to be able to afford the inflated prices at her local stores. Butchers and greengrocers are incredibly expensive compared to the cheap meats available at the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury. In rural areas even places marketed as ‘local’ and good for the community, like the Co-op, inflate their prices knowing they have a stranglehold on the surrounding community as there’s no larger, cheaper stores nearby; People will be forced to pay. When the cost of local produce eclipses that of a cheaper shop that can be done 20 miles away, travel or home delivery included, it’s a no brainer which you go for if you’re stuck in a financial rut with little income and a lot of outgoings and responsibilities.

A person who struggles with their sight or literacy and it prevents them from being able to read ingredients printed on packaging is not likely to be aware that the product they’re buying contains palm oil, a product for which a large amount of animal habitat is destroyed leading to the mass deaths of certain species.
They may be disabled in a way which prevents them from being able to cook, leaving them reliant on ready meals and other pre-made foods. If you are disabled you are more likely to be in poverty which means those pre-made meals are less likely to be high in quality and therefore will almost certainly contain palm oil. Frozen ready meals in particular are renown for their palm oil content, but in those situations how many choices do you actually have?

At christmas, a disabled person scraping by wants to buy nice presents for their family but has been in overdraft for 4 months after unexpected bills threw them into financial chaos. Do they risk something from a nice local shop, or one with a good reputation, likely to have a price tag which goes along to match the moral way in which they practice business? Wander around countless shops and physically exhaust themselves trying to find gifts from different retailers that they might be able to afford? Or do they avoid the higher risk of potential financial meltdown if another bill comes in and hit up amazon for cheap but nice products where they won’t feel guilty or anxious about where it leaves them?

Someone working 3 jobs and trying to raise kids will likely not have time to research the manufacturing process of a company’s stock; where the cotton is produced, whether those workers are compensated and living in reasonable conditions or are being exploited. Where the cotton is turned into cloth, the same thing… Are the staff free to do as they please? Can they eat? Are they healthy? What of where they’re stitched together into the products we buy… How are they treated there, and how does it compare to the material suppliers given this part of manufacture is what often dictates the view of the company’s ethical standing? What I mean by that is, you can have a company abusing workers right the way up the chain until a point where people pay attention. Treat those right in areas where people are looking and ultimately you can hide a lot of sins. Is that person in 3 jobs going to put in the effort to dig past that level of every retailer they use?

Someone who struggles with food and nutrition may avoid a vegan or vegetarian diet because they do not have the time or capacity to learn to make changes to their diet or it’s not conducive to their health. If they’re unable to cook and beholden to what’s available in store, the pre-made foods generally being on the pricier side of things, they need to find the time to learn which might not be possible in their circumstances. They may have a learning disability that makes it an awful lot harder for them to learn, they could be illiterate and struggle with recipes so don’t know a starting point. They also may not have the money that it takes to learn to cook; buying ingredients they’re unfamiliar with and wasting valuable food as they learn their way around a kitchen and figure out what tastes they like, and all of the energy use that can entail.

People who can just about afford their food shop and have to search around on pricing is very unlikely to buy organic free range eggs and meat, or organic local vegetables, lamb reared in Wales. They’re looking for a meal they can afford; cheap meat, some vegetables, ready meals. Quick cheap food they can sustain themselves on without it leaving them in a tough spot with cost, health, and time; both cooking wise and education on nutrition for a potential change of diet.

Something galling of those touting their moral fortitude in their condemnation of the actions of others is an ever-present hypocrisy. Twitter is full of people acting holier than thou, telling others they’re ruining the planet and just need to make this change, or that. Mentioning certain companies can be seen as an invitation to be reminded of how awful they are (the implication heavily being ‘you should be boycotting them, what are you doing?).

It’s all well and good being critical of companies if that’s your thing, but you should at least have firm standing from which to preach if you consider yourself high enough morally to lecture individuals on their consumer choices, and you better damn sure know the angle you’re approaching it from given the economic barriers placed in people’s way. For example, are you using Apple products? Do you own an iphone or ipad? Apple have been consistently criticised for the pollution the manufacture of their products causes as well as working conditions in their production facilities and health of their staff.

It’s not just them, either. Other smartphone, tablet, telly, laptop, and PC manufacturers have had similar condemnations. There is no ethical option in that regard, tech is not an ethical business and in using technology you contribute to the harm it’s doing to the planet, to communities, contributing to the exploitation of labour (including of children), ill health of workers in certain manufacturing areas, as well as supporting the poisoning of water sources and land from waste.
A lot of technology is mass produced in planet-unfriendly circumstances by people who are being exploited, and if they’re not being exploited just go further down the line. Look at the conditions workers are living and working in around the mines where the raw materials used in the production of tech are taken from.

If you use technology you are as compliant as anyone else. I’ve heard it said that technology is something that cannot be avoided as the internet is a daily part of life, and that’s true. But if you consider yourself as having a pass for a situation you are effectively forced into, how does that make you different from anyone else forced into a consumer choice against their ethics?
I am not ethical, I am likely to never be ethical, not for lack of want but circumstance. Judging people for not following the kind of ethical decisions they’re expected to make as consumers is not feminist, it’s not kind on disability, on poverty, on people’s capacity and opportunity to learn things, people’s struggle for time, on all manner of things.

The hypocritical call for ethics can be very harsh indeed when so many people feel guilt over the decisions they make as consumers based on the circumstances they’re in. I know many who want to boycott companies, buy better food, buy local, shop around. They can’t.

So eat your organic, local, vegan food, buy your fairtrade t-shirts, drink your independent teas and boycott amazon and Tesco, but don’t condemn others for not doing so. Unless you know a person’s situation intimately and how it relates to any of the choices you make, you’ve no idea what their reasoning is and how much choice they truly have

Intersectionality is a tool for understanding these things, to see how different personal circumstances apply on different subjects and social issues.
Use it.

Summary: While I believe it’s commendable to base your consumer choices on your personal morality, you cannot expect the same of everyone and it is deeply unfair to do so. It takes time to research and learn, as well as the faculties to do so which some with disabilities or literacy issues lack. It can also be very expensive given that ‘ethical’ products are often priced higher than others, which makes it difficult for someone on a low income such as benefits to afford. It’s also very difficult to know which companies are ethical and which are not, given that large companies often hide their practices from consumers. I ask that you consider the potential circumstances of others instead of judging them based on your world view.

Edit: I’ve thrown in a little bit more information about the ways that a vegan or vegetarian diet can be difficult for some and given some examples. I was told I was being dishonest, making going vegan sound harder than it is, and they weren’t able to see how complex that can be, as a result I’ve expanded on it a bit. I have also changed the title to be less confrontational, though frankly the point stands. It’s unfair to push this onto people.