The easiest way to begin to answer the question is to list the (perhaps) top four types of ethical consumption that exist under capitalism today.
We then go on to look at three other frequently asked questions in the same area on the subjects of cost, class, and the idea of ‘ethical capitalism’.
Top 4 types of ethical consumption under capitalism
1. Consumer boycotts
Consciously deciding not to buy something for ethical reasons is a type of ethical consumption.
The idea of ethical consumption as a conscious movement was born out of the crucible of consumer boycotts that spread around the world in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these were directly trying to address specific forms of oppression (such as modern slavery, animal testing and institutionalised racism) which were being generated and maintained by investor-focused businesses.
Perhaps foremost amongst these were the boycotts of food producers and financial institutions that were thriving under the racist apartheid regime in South Africa at that time. These campaigns were supported by towns and cities, governments, trades unions, churches and political parties as well as individual consumers.
Today boycotters focus on different issues such as investment in new coal projects in an era of climate crisis and tax avoidance. Boycotts also continue to be used with some impact against racist regimes (such as the ongoing Palestinian BDS campaign - Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
At Ethical Consumer we have published a list of ongoing boycotts for people to support in the UK since 1989 and we continue to provide this list as it remains a hugely popular page on our website.
2. Solidarity purchasing
In the same way that it’s possible for people to direct their money away from (boycotted) problem companies, people also have the opportunity to support organisations specifically asking for help.
A very early manifestation of this was the solidarity coffees that emerged in Nicaragua in the 1980s to support farmers under the vulnerable socialist regime at that time. Buying those coffee products was a way people around the world could express their support and provide financial support to farmers.
The Fairtrade movement later institutionalised and consolidated solidarity movements in the agricultural sector particularly and has grown to become a giant international movement of its own. Although to some extent it has become co-opted by mainstream companies and challenged by campaigners, it remains a critical generator of support for producer co-operatives in many poorer economies.
In parts of Latin America in particular, the notion of the solidarity economy has been strong amongst critics of capitalism and features discussion of buying from co-operatives (see 3 below) particularly.
3. Buying from co-operatives
Co-operatively owned businesses may offer a genuine alternative to the shareholder model of capitalism. Co-ops incorporate values like mutual aid and self-help at their core.
Globally their impact is significant too. Recent attempts to measure the size of the co-operative economy say that:
- More than 12% of humanity belong to one or more of the 3 million co-operatives in the world
- Co-operatives provide jobs for 280 million people across the globe in 145 countries, (10% of the world’s employed population).
- The largest 300 co-operatives and mutuals report a total turnover of 2,146 billion USD, according to the World Cooperative Monitor (2020)
The co-operative movement's 'principle six' encourages co-operatives to buy from other co-operatives where possible - thereby strengthening the notion that, in some areas, parallel ethical economies are capable of emerging.
Ethical Consumer's shopping guides, which give ethical scores to companies across lots of markets, give extra points to co-operatives and other types of social enterprise. (And as an aside, Ethical Consumer is also a co-operative!)
Veganism is clearly a form of ethical consumption which exists 'under capitalism'. It is currently thriving almost everywhere: from Hungary to Japan and from Chile to Canada. Statistics, and indeed our own vegan-focused reports at Ethical Consumer, show an explosive growth in brands, companies and sales pretty much everywhere.
For some people it is also about campaigning to make it less acceptable for certain ‘products’ to be bought and sold and considered commodities at all.