Is Ethical Consumerism for Real?


Author: Vijaylakshmi Hegde

Is it possible to be an ethical consumer for real? Of course! In fact, the question that precedes this one is if we ‘want’ to be ethical consumers. And this could lead to another discussion altogether. However, what really interests me more is this one: can we be ethical and consume at the same time? I’m not trying to be all Marxist on you, but it is indeed hard to do both in today’s day and age. Naomi Klein in her book No Logo said that it’s almost impossible today to not consume anything that hasn’t been produced, even if in a tiny way.

Ethical Consumerism
Source – Jeni Rodger

But first, we need to understand what it means to be an ethical consumer. No, I am not going to look up on Wikipedia, but lay it out as I, a consumer, understand it. Being an ethical consumer would mean not buying or endorsing a product or service that hurts the environment, human beings, animals, or violates the law of the land. Sometimes, it may not be the product itself but the company selling the product or the conglomerate owning such a company that may be polluting or violating a law. It also doesn’t have to be a branded product – it could be stuff like fish and eggs sold in the market. For instance, are they genetically modified? Were they produced or harvested in a way that degraded the environment?

How and where they are produced, by whom, in what working conditions – all should matter to the ethical consumer. In short, while on World Consumer Day, we’re hearing about consumer rights everywhere, the ethical consumer thinks about and shoulder responsibility for her actions. Remember, rights always come with duties.

Ethical Consumerism 2
Image – Wikimedia

But, if you really think about it, Klein is right: there really aren’t too many things that you can do which won’t affect the environment in some way or threaten the livelihoods of marginal communities. Call me alarmist, if you will, but it is true.

Pick up a bottle of a popular soft drink and you have taken part in sucking up enormous amounts of groundwater necessary to produce it. Buy a car and you have consumed untold amounts of natural resources. Even if all you do is plonk yourself on the couch and over-eat, you’re adding to the pressure to produce ever more amounts of food, which has its own environmental consequences, of course. You’d never know if people may be killing themselves over making some seemingly harmless, yet designer zippers.

Yet, I believe that we can mitigate the effects of our consumption, if only we can avoid being consumerist. That is, if we keep in mind what Gandhiji said about the earth having enough for our need, but not for our greed, we should be okay.

organic food

I know this immediately pips me into the larger arena of development versus environment and human rights. However, here are a few things that we can do to consume and yet care for our fellow human beings and the environment:

  • Buy what you need, but think hard and long about buying what you don’t absolutely need. For example, do we need to buy tons of chips packets, cold drinks? Not only will this add layers of fat to you, but the packaging material used in the instant food or snack category is almost always plastic and, hence, non-degradable. Same goes for the larger purchases you may make: do you need that second car?
  • Buy less often, buy fewer things. Apart from the regular requirements of life, put off other needless purchases as far as possible. Further, you really don’t need that 50th pair of shoes or the 35th dress, do you?
  • Pick up the pen. If you hear about a company that’s flouting labour or environmental regulations, write to the company. At the very least, boycott their products, but not in the same way that India threatened to pull out of the Olympics because Dow Chemicals (now owner of Union Carbide – yes, the one that caused the Bhopal tragedy) was sponsoring it.
  • Buy local, as far as possible. You’re not only contributing to the local economy as possible, but also leaving a smaller carbon footprint by not buying those exotic fruits flown from abroad.
  • Buy organic. Shift to a greener and toxic-free living by purchasing organic food, since they are considered healthy as well as less harmful to the environment. Yes, obviously you need to pay a higher cost, but you can reap benefits in the long-term.

There are numerous small things you can do that can make a difference to the environment, human beings, and even the animals that we use in the production of the goods we consume. If we can’t do all of them, we can certainly do some of them. The important thing to remember is this: you’re not doing anyone else a favour by being an ethical consumer, but yourself. If you need the businesses that serve you to be ethical, so should you. One follows the other.

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