On Ethical Consumption: We Can’t Just Shop Our Way to a Better World


This piece is a response to a commentary by Marianne Møllmann that was published in RH Reality Check on March 19, 2013.

Recently, Marianne Møllmann wrote a piece for RH Reality Check in which she argued that porn should be regulated, but so should any number of other goods we buy, including chocolate, diamonds, and shoes. But it can be problematic to discuss ethical consumption mainly as a matter of nonessential and luxury goods purchases, or as an easy step toward creating positive social change. Broader change needs to happen as well.

The underlying question of ethical purchasing is how easy or difficult our collective decisions make it for each of us to survive and thrive on this irreplaceable planet. A big question like that doesn’t have a simple answer, and it can’t be fixed by cutting back on things we barely bought in the first place. It starts, messily, with every person’s need to make a living by producing a good or service that has exchange value to other people.

Ideally, each of us, every time we participated in those exchanges, could judge the purchase based on much more information than we usually have available. But even the items purchased during a simple trip to the grocery store can represent the labor of hundreds or even thousands of people who’ve worked to make and ship those products.

Every object in our homes or at our workplaces, every meal we eat, and every piece of media we consume to keep ourselves informed and entertained has either been produced or delivered by someone else in the global labor market, and that person may have been treated poorly by his or her employer, just as we ourselves may have been. It may have been produced in a way that was damaging to the environment or in a way that is harmful to human health.

At some point, it becomes clear that we can’t feasibly shop our way to a better world all by ourselves.

Consider the food you eat; let’s start with the farms where it grows. Are the workers who grow it paid decently? Are they subjected to dangerous chemicals that can also cause miscarriages or birth defects? Is it grown in a way that preserves or destroys small animal, beneficial insect, and bird habitats? Is the crop irrigated from a declining water resource?

If it’s imported food, is it grown or harvested with child or slave labor? Does the farmer who grows your morning coffee get paid as much for a bag of raw beans as you might pay for a cup of brewed coffee? That coffee might be a small part of our day, but its value is second only to oil in the global commodities trade, and farmers often have to accept prices as low as $0.30-$0.50 per pound for this popular crop that’s one of the few capable of supporting wild bird habitat.

If it’s domestic food, is it produced by immigrant labor? Are the workers allowed to take breaks when temperatures are dangerously high? Are they protected from sexual harassment or assault?

Is the meat you eat processed at a plant with safe working conditions? Are the animals grown in a healthful, humane way? Does the manure from the ranch contribute to building local soil or toward expanding an ocean dead zone?

Do the workers who serve your restaurant meal or check you out at the grocery counter have paid sick days? Do they have health care, can they afford child care, and can they get family leave if they need it and still have a job to come back to? Does their employer belong to a lobbying association that opposes organizing rights or fair pay for low-wage workers?

If you, as a worker, don’t have the power to negotiate for a fair wage, you may not always be able to afford to take any of those things into consideration. You have to eat, and so does your family.

Next, consider your cell phone. Mobile phones are so widespread that not only is it hard to get by without one in a wealthy nation—they’ve become common necessities in developing countries, because building cell phone infrastructure is much cheaper than setting up land lines.

If you’re in the United States, you have to choose from a variety of carriers who may or may not be unionized and treat their workers well. All the regional carriers except one (Qwest, now CenturyLink) participated voluntarily in the Bush administration’s warrant-less wiretapping—a mass civil rights violation affecting an untold number of Americans. In other words, they’re not the best behaved companies, but you have to pick one.

No matter where you live, you’re buying a phone made with coltan, a columbite-tantalite mineral. You’ve probably heard of conflict diamonds, which the typical person doesn’t buy very often, but did you know that coltan is also a major conflict mineral that fuels murderous guerrilla armies in central Africa? Some of the miners who dig for coltan and other conflict minerals are in the same position as poor Afghan farmers who grow opium to sell through the Taliban; their families have no other source of income and no other means of getting their product to market.

You can know all of this, and yet still need a phone. You can’t beat yourself up with guilt about it. You have to go on with your life.

Now, look in your closet and your dresser drawers. Almost every item of clothing your family wears was produced by sweatshop workers, perhaps in a country where labor organizers are tortured or killed. Avoiding luxury clothing doesn’t get you out of this dilemma.

There’s not always very much you can do about it. As the documentary Schmatta so thoroughly laid out, the garment industry in the United States, as well as in other developed nations with stronger workplace protections, has almost completely disappeared. The factories are gone, the workers scattered, and no policies are on the horizon to reverse the decline.

But you have to buy clothes.

Are your light bulbs energy efficient? Are you buying green power if it’s available? Is your furniture made of sustainably harvested wood? Are you reusing? Recycling? …

The questions are endless, and many people who want to take their passion for social justice to the store with them find that what works is to change one thing at a time, as they can. That slowly builds a routine, the routine becomes a habit, and the habit becomes easy.

These issues are too big for us to solve through the careful application of our individual spending power, particularly since the average wage today is 14 percent lower, in real dollars, than it was in 1972.

If you care about local food production, it’s great to provide a customer base for your local farmers’ market. But you can probably do more to support the cause by calling on your state legislators and congressional representatives to support fair food policies, and even more if you ask your friends and neighbors to do the same.

You can try to buy domestically produced goods to support well-paying jobs closer to home, but when the factories where those goods are produced are closing, maybe it’s time to start writing Congress and the White House about our trade policy. Or perhaps before that, help build power in the workplace and support legal protections for collective bargaining, so that the jobs that are available pay a living wage. Also, you can join others to take the effort to speak out against unbearable human rights abuses and the corporations that help make them profitable.

The advances in human rights that were made over the last century were achieved by average people who coordinated their actions and worked together to achieve what they could never accomplish on their own. They may have had the aid of charismatic leaders here and there, but every successful modern movement has required the work and dedication of millions.

When our predecessors faced similar problems with powerful oligarchs, unaccountable governments, and entrenched systems of oppression, ordinary people joined together and created a new social contract that brought about unprecedented prosperity for ordinary people.

Those hard-won gains are at risk. Sometimes it seems like we can’t even hold on to what recent generations fought for, let alone expand that prosperity to others.

And when we get to the realization that not only are we ourselves under constant siege from political forces trying to roll back the calendar, but that our system is so oppressive we can hardly get dressed or eat a sandwich without abetting a human rights violation, that’s exactly the right time to go look for fellow malcontents to work with to fix it.

It’s good to shop with heart. But the key is the heart, not the shopping. If you take even one more step down the path of wanting a more just world, you might be amazed at what you can accomplish.

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  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    I came to this site hoping for mainly news on reproduction and see what I could find to help me oppose government intrusion into reproductive matters.

    And what I find is that the site is mainly Progressive. Which then turns reproduction issues into a ghetto.

    I don’t think that is wise politically. It denies you allies who are reflexively anti-Progressive but favor keeping government out of wombs. Why am I reflexively anti-Progressive? Because I’m generally against “Government should…” .