Ethical Consumerism aims to gradually reform our economic system into a more moral one by creating market incentives that discourage exploitation while attempting to encourage the creation of a humane version of capitalism. These individual-based solutions might make consumers feel better about participating in capitalism, but they do not address the structural causes of capitalist exploitation or environmental destruction. The choices of individual consumers are ineffectual within the context of capitalist production. The fundamental error of a so-called ethical consumerism is the fantasy that a more compassionate capitalism is possible.
Self-described “green” or “eco” capitalism is a contradiction because the goals of profit and conservation are inherently in conflict, even if the two might periodically coincide. For example, The primary responsibility of corporations is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Directors and officers of a corporation have a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s shareholders and are thus compelled to put the interests of the corporation above all other interests. In fact, they can be held financially liable if it can be proven that they have sacrificed profits in the interest of the environment. No corporate board can sacrifice earnings for environmental sustainability unless the two happen to intersect. In a system that prioritizes profit maximization above all else, ecological sustainability is unachievable. Only once the pursuit of profit is subordinate to the needs of the people and the planet can sustainability be achieved. “We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require national and international economic planning to re-organize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends.” (Tokar, Brian March 2014)
The choice to go “green” costs more but does not make any real difference in a consumer’s carbon footprint. Consumers are spending more while some of the same major polluters are profiting from these consumer choices, and overall global pollution remains unaffected. Human-caused climate change has reached catastrophic levels, and many scientists warn that we are nearing the point of no return. However, it is not individual consumers who are to blame. “Climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality: it is a crisis that is driven by the greenhouse gas emissions of the ‘haves’ that hits the ‘have-nots’ the hardest.” (Gore, Timothy “Extreme Carbon Inequality” 2 December, 2015)
The Oxfam 2015 Extreme Carbon Inequality report explains that the vast majority of the human population is responsible for only a small fraction of average total greenhouse gas emissions. The greatest proportion of these emissions is emitted by the minority of the wealthiest people on earth:
“Around 50% of emissions can be attributed to the richest 10% of people around the world, who have average carbon footprints 11 times as high as the poorest half of the population, and 60 times as high as the poorest 10%. The average footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10%.” (Gore, Timothy. “Extreme Carbon Inequality,” December 2, 2015)
Although only responsible for a fraction of average total global greenhouse gas emissions, the poorest half of the earth’s population remains the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The major flaw in “ethical consumption” is the illusion that there is a more ethical option under capitalism. The idea that we can somehow “vote with our dollars” — or make consumer choices that will influence the market in order to produce more desirable outcomes — overlooks the fact that climate change can be directly attributed to the class of people who are in control of the majority of the world’s wealth.
A March 2012 study published by the University of Corvinus in Budapest in Journal of Consumer Policy found that there is “no significant difference” between the carbon footprint of those who “ethically” consume and those who do not. The study also showed that people in the working class cannot afford a “sustainable lifestyle” due to poverty, lack of accessibility, long hours of work, etc. The study clearly demonstrated that workers are unhappy with these outcomes and are aware that the system is not set up to advance their interests. This has effectively co-opted the idea of ethical choices and uses it to hide the inarguable cruelty inherent to the profit motive. It will never be possible for everyone to make “environmentally friendly” choices due to systemic economic and social inequality. Under capitalism, the ability to be environmentally friendly has been made into a commodity for the capitalist class to profit from.
Ethical Consumerism aims to incrementally reform our economic system into a more moral one by creating market incentives to promote a less exploitative capitalism. The obvious flaw in incentivizing ethical consumerism is the lie that there is a more moral option under capitalism. This fantasy obfuscates the need to hold these polluters responsible for their environmental destruction at our expense. Only a democratic economic system that meets the needs of the majority, rather than one that feeds the greed of a parasitic minority, will prioritize the needs of our society and the limitations of the earth. This will finally allow the immense resources on planet earth to be enjoyed sustainably in the interests of the majority and future generations.
— Mark Patterson
December 11, 2019