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Can ethical consumption exist under capitalism?

Although it can sometimes look more like a statement than a question, 'there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism' is probably one of the most frequently-asked questions we get at Ethical Consumer.

Rob Harrison and Jasmine Owens untangle and explain its complexities. 

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!)

4. Veganism

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.

As some products (like meat and fossil fuels) become less consumed, alternatives emerge to help speed this process along (like vegan meat and renewable energy).

Refill shop with loose food and liquids

So there is ethical consumption under capitalism!

So the first problem with the statement 'there's no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism' is that it is failing to recognise the very obvious, and important, types of ethical consumption which do exist, and indeed are flourishing, under capitalism today. These include boycotts, solidarity buying, buying from co-ops and veganism.

Are you trying to say 'ethical capitalism' exists?

Another criticism from some 'no such thing' advocates is the misguided belief that all ethical consumers necessarily believe that some sort of ethical capitalism is possible.

Whilst some big corporations do make this argument and other strange claims, many thousands of grassroots campaigns and projects make no such claims. They are simply trying to address specific, often urgent, problems in consumer markets through collective action.

And sometimes these interventions are very successful. To stop doing these because of fear it might make people think that capitalism can be a good thing would be to turn our backs on communities and ecosystems in desperate need of support.

Capitalist institutions create the problems, not us – why should we have to carry the burden?

Finally, it is worth noting that much of the impetus around the meme that 'no such thing' has become, is to challenge the notion of the 'responsibilisation' of the consumer, and poorer communities particularly, for the damage that occurs through the greed of capitalist institutions.

Of course it is important to emphasise how it is the abuse of corporate power (rather than consumer power) which lies at the heart of many of the problems around us. And indeed, 'Helping you to challenge corporate power' has been the number one item on Ethical Consumer’s mission statement for more than twenty years now.

However there are also dangers inherent in pushing away all notions of consumer responsibility.

Firstly, it means giving up a valuable tool at our disposal for creating change. Not only can it lead to even greater apathy and inaction, but it can also be used as an excuse to avoid difficult questions. As commentator Amisha Kohli put it, the phrase 'no ethical consumption under capitalism' “has been adopted into the circles of progressive leftists who want to consume the fruits of Black and brown people’s labor, and further perpetuate the harms we face".

Ethical consumption can be expensive – does that make it classist and non inclusive?

Making the argument that ethical consumption is pernicious because it is harder for poorer people to do can come close to arguing that "employing working-class children in India and poisoning working-class families in China is a good way of addressing inequalities of wealth distribution in the UK." (See The Handbook of Ethical Purchasing for more on this.)

This doesn't come across as something many people would like to stand behind.

There’s no denying that some types of ethical consumption can be easier for some people (with big bank balances) than others (for whom money and time are in short supply). However, there are many forms of ethical consumption that are accessible to everyone. Lots of forms of ethical consumption are low-cost and can even save you money.

Is it time to ditch the phrase 'there’s no such thing…'?

The statement 'there's no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism' probably makes more sense if it is seen as a deliberate provocation rather than a coherent political statement.

And whilst it is good to be critical of everything we all do, the statement doesn't really get close to reflecting the complexities around us, nor the important role that ethical consumption is playing in helping to apply the brakes, as best it can, to a system which appears to be running out of control.

Find out more

Ethical Consumer's shopping guides reflect on all the campaigns, boycotts and solidarity actions that relate to the markets around us. They also give ethical scores to companies which take into account key responsibility issues like tax avoidance, workers' rights and company ethos.

To read more about some of the broader political ideas at play in the ethical and political consumption movements, see the Handbook of Ethical Purchasing by Rob Harrison (particularly at Chapter 10).