A single choice brings with it several effects and consequences, most of which are often invisible. Yet, in today's transactional world, it has become only the consumers who are expected to take sole responsibility for making choices. While industries strive for customer satisfaction, for maximum profits, the consumer is the only one expected to make ‘ethical’ choices. Is it the consumer’s obligation alone to recognise and address the issues at hand and pave the way for a more sustainable future by purchasing selectively, or is it really the producer's?
There are many ways to look at this question, and the answer lies in a frequently used term when discussing matters like these called "ethical consumerism". What exactly does ethical consumerism entail? Well, it is a form of political activism that focuses on highlighting prevalent social and political issues by urging buyers to choose products manufactured by companies whose goods and services ensure that the production process follows the norms of ethicality when viewed through the lens of these issues. Currently, the meaning of 'ethical' would be seen as supporting small-scale manufacturers, protecting the environment, treating workers fairly, et cetera. By using the faculty of consumer choice, producers, for greater profits, are enticed to create goods and services that satisfy the customers’ understanding of what is ethical. This, it is hoped, will lead to successful campaigns similar to some like dolphin-free tuna, foods free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fair-trade coffee, and many others.
Throughout history, there have been many incidents of boycotts to drive ethical choice-making by consumers. For example, during Apartheid, international communities managed to institute change through economic pressure on South Africa by boycotting and inducing sanctions on South African imports. This again led to the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress, an anti-apartheid party, freeing all political prisoners.
There have been numerous events like these that showcase the impact of consumers making informed choices to bring about political or economic change. However, ethical consumerism has earned its fair share of critics. Some argue that the whole notion of ethical consumerism is constraining the freedom of others, especially those who cannot afford these ethically manufactured products, which is unfair as it is accessible only to wealthy consumers. In this case, the push for ethical consumerism fails to talk about those who cannot afford ethical products due to their relatively higher prices. These critics insist that while activists raise their voices for bringing about change, worker wages and sustainable practises are often compromised, harming the very people they support. For example, urging everyone to boycott a particular nation’s manufacturing because of its belligerent foreign policies would end up harming the workers of that nation, who have little to do with government decisions.
Another obvious problem is the absence of comprehensive information. In today's world, with confidentiality agreements and intellectual property rights, there is restricted information about the complete manufacture of products. Therefore, critics argue that because of the limited information out in the open, people might fall short of making informed ethical choices, defeating the whole intention of ethical consumerism.
Besides these issues, one needs to examine the idea of accountability, as currently this culpability only lies with the consumers. In essence, by suggesting that consumers are the decision-makers in the market, the onus is handed over to the consumers rather than the producers who strive only for increased profits. Hence, ethical consumerism offers the illusion of “doing our part”, yet this idea diminishes the importance of other factors and creates individualisation, making us merely consumers rather than citizens. Given that corporations dominate the market, it's crucial to introduce policies that hold them accountable for the production process if we want to make significant progress towards a better world. Instead of relying on consumers to research, a more radical solution would involve developing comprehensive policies that cover all aspects of production.
In conclusion, there is no simple solution to creating a better world. We certainly cannot buy our way there. Yet, it is our duty and responsibility as citizens of tomorrow to recognise the importance of ethical consumption and the need for reducing global consumption levels. Save today for a better tomorrow.