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A Look at Ethical Consumption in the 21st Century

As the impending threat of climate change constantly hangs over our heads, more and more people are wondering how they can advocate for environmental change within their community. From this idea, some have begun to turn to more personalized ways of mitigating their impact on the environment. Ethical consumption, or ethical consumerism, is a form of political activism where individuals examine the circumstances a product is made under, as a way of determining whether the money spent on it is benefitting an ethical producer. This is predicated upon the principle of dollar voting, where consumers examine the impact of their spending in line with their moral beliefs.

Both dollar voting and ethical consumerism serve as ways consumers can take action and stand for what they believe in, even at a local level. Vegan diets are a prime example of ethics playing a role in consumerism, as vegans do not purchase products made at the expense of animals (i.e., meat, eggs, fur, snakeskin, etc.). Other examples include clean machines, cruelty-free makeup, and examining the ethics of the production company itself (i.e., whether employees are treated humanely, paid minimum wage, no child labor, etc.).

Veganism is a key example of ethical consumption, as it supports non-animal based products when purchased. Image via rawpixel.com.

However, while ethical consumption has allowed individuals with little political power to do the part they can, in the 21st century, researchers and the general population are beginning to wonder if there is any significance to ethical consumerism- and whether it is even possible in the larger scheme of things.

According to the New York Times, roughly 1-5% of the population practices ethical spending, with seemingly tangible results; over the past few years, there have been booms in energy-efficient, hybrid, and eco-friendly products. Despite this, the knowledge that you have just made an ethical purchase could also have a counterintuitive effect. Ethical consumerism may siphon off pressure from citizens to do more regarding impending climate change if they feel they have already done something. For instance, because you bought a hybrid car that uses less fuel, you may stop worrying about recycling or buying more ethical products since you consider your part to be done. This illustrates a one step forward, two steps back scenario; doing one good thing to support the environment does not automatically excuse any detrimental purchases you make, because you end up doing more bad than good with the knowledge that your part is complete. Furthermore, one action is not sustainable and needs future action along with it to actually make an impact.

Additionally, it’s questionable whether there is any pure concept of ethics when it comes to consumption. The product you’re buying may support a cleanly environment, but how does the corporation that produced it compensate for its waste released into the atmosphere? Nearly all production results in some sort of waste, no matter how ethical the product label states it is. And the fact remains that albeit 5% of consumers may shop ethically, it is simply not enough to erase the years of damage done to the environment or the conflicts our global community is facing today. Years and years of manufacturing waste, carbon footprints, fuel emissions, energy waste and deforestation have taken an egregious toll on the world environment to the point of almost no return.

Socioeconomic status and lifestyle needs are also seldom considered when looking at ethical consumption. For someone who makes above minimum wage and can afford luxurious commodities, an ethical lifestyle seems easy enough to attain. However, with the cost of production being higher for more naturally made products, the prices of these ethical options are also much higher than “unethical” ones; thus, not everyone can afford to integrate them into their lives. Health issues also play a legitimate role in determining whether ethical purchases are in your best interest, as some individuals depend on various food groups more than other groups to provide their sustenance and cannot give these foods up in favor of more ethical ones.

Climate change is inexorable, even with the potential help of ethical consumption, as not enough consumers practice it to be effective on a large-scale. Image via Pixabay.

But in spite of the shortcomings, there are still legitimate reasons to practice ethical consumerism, even if it won’t guarantee a safe future for the world. Simply advocating for and utilizing ethical means of shopping provides a platform for further dialogue to occur about the environment. People with similar ideas regarding consumption can help advocate for changes in policy to corporations and production law. It also gives power, no matter how seemingly small, back to individual consumers who have the chance to exercise their beliefs in everyday life.

Whether it can spell salvation from environmental catastrophes or is futile without real policy change behind it, ethical consumption is worthwhile for every individual to practice as it not only supports ethical companies, but can also provide a gateway to future political action. The benefits can also be observed on an individual and local level, and do not necessarily need to have larger implications for citizens to practice it. Many people together acting on behalf of the environment may still not yet be enough, but it’s better than no one trying at all.

Featured Image Via Pixabay.

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Written By

Colleen is an avid journalist and sophomore attending Langley High School just outside Washington DC. Apart from competing in Model United Nations and playing the viola, Colleen additionally pursues ways to intertwine her journalistic passions with mental health advocacy for more integrated awareness. Outside of school, she serves as a Mentor for Global Classrooms DC and is a member of the International OCD Foundation.

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