Ethical consumerism, form of political activism based on the premise that purchasers in markets consume not only goods but also, implicitly, the process used to produce them. From the point of view of ethical consumerism, consumption is a political act that sanctions the values embodied in a product’s manufacture. By choosing certain products over others, or even whether to purchase at all, consumers can embrace or reject particular environmental and labour practices and make other value claims based on the ethical values they hold. Exercising choice in this way creates incentives for producers to make production practices conform to consumer values. Successful campaigns waged by ethical consumer movements have popularized dolphin-free tuna, foods that are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sweatshop-free clothing, fair-trade coffee, cosmetic products free from animal testing, and conflict-free diamonds.
The idea of using consumption as a lever of political change is rooted in boycotts organized by social movements against products, firms, and even countries, including opposition to apartheid in South Africa and the military junta in Myanmar (Burma). As production continues to migrate from the developed to the developing world, thereby escaping the regulatory spheres of Western nation-states, consumer activists increasingly see ethical consumerism as an extralegal way to influence labour and environmental practices in faraway places. Ethical consumerism, according to its most ardent advocates, potentially stands as a novel form of postnational politics in which consumer-citizens reshape the practice of global capitalism from the bottom up.
Ethical consumerism entails two key shifts in how markets are conceived. First, consumer goods, once thought of as objects without a history, are redefined to include the ethical (and unethical) decisions made in the production process. Second, the act of consumption itself becomes a political choice, not unlike voting, so that democratic values come to be exercised in the market. Redefining consumption in this way challenges the premise underlying current market structures, in which legal mechanisms such as confidentiality agreements and intellectual property rights are often invoked to shroud the details of production from the inquiring public. The protest lodged by the ethical consumerism movement against these dominant arrangements constitutes an explicit attempt to renegotiate the boundary between politics and the market.
The codes of conduct created by ethical consumerist movements to ensure that production practices remain true to certain values themselves embody controversial notions of political representation. What counts as a fair wage or environmentally sustainable practice remains contested across political, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts. Critics see ethical consumerism as a dangerous marketization of ethics whereby the values of wealthy consumers “go global,” unfairly constraining the freedom of others. These critics charge that consumerist movements in advanced countries are too quick to equate their preferences with the best interest of the labourers and environmental concerns on whose behalf they purport to act. Underpinning the practice of ethical consumerism is thus the presumption that consumption, a process driven by the global distribution of wealth, can serve as an effective surrogate for other, more traditional forms of democratic representation, such as voting. Whether ethical consumerism becomes an effective means of economic governance in the postnational order remains to be seen.
Written by Christopher Kirchhoff, Past Fellow of the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
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