Depending on who you ask, the word Consumerism can have at least two meanings.
The Oxford Online Dictionary provides two definitions, and at Ethical Consumer we focus on the second of them:
- "The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers."
- "The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods."
While the protection and promotion of the interests of consumers is worthy enough, it fails to take into account the economic system we live in and the consequences of our consumption on people, planet and animals.
The role of a consumer in our society is simply to buy more goods in order to help the system continue - to help the system create more and cheaper products - regardless of the problems that this may cause.
Simply protecting the interests of the consumer may help them to get a better deal, but it can also help preserve an unsustainable system that is destroying the planet and taking a grave toll on people and communities.
"The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods" is now wreaking havoc on societies across the world and so we advocate ethical consumption and not ethical consumerism, which we see as an oxymoron.
We don't believe that consumerism can ever really be ethical.
How and when did this consumerism start?
You can see this most clearly by looking back at how the system has developed.
For example, buying new clothes was once expensive and done only when needed. We'd buy a new item of clothing because the old one is no longer of any use and cannot be fixed.
Now in western societies you can buy clothing very cheaply. In theory it's a good thing that people can now afford more clothes but the reality has turned into something different. We are at the stage where some people have hundreds of items of clothing, many of which rarely, if ever, get worn. People have become preoccupied with their consumption regardless of the social and environmental costs.
Taken on a national or global scale we are creating demand which is met by companies that produce clothes at an ever increasing rate. Meanwhile this production often has terrible consequences for people and the environment. What was once affordable clothing has morphed into unsustainable fast fashion.
The true cost of products
While the price in shops may be low it doesn’t reflect the true cost.
What about all the pollution produced from the new production processes for making that t-shirt? Or the low wages paid to those who now make the clothes?
Economists call the problems that aren’t reflected in the price “externalities” and in our globalised society it's usually the poorest and most vulnerable (or the average tax payer) who pick up the tab, not the companies and brands that make the products we consume.
For example, in the UK low wages are subsidised (in part) by in-work benefits, while the cost of pollution from cars that causes breathing difficulties is picked up by the NHS.
All too often there is no safety net and those on low wages in other parts of the world suffer grinding poverty despite being in work. While pollution goes unchecked without any meaningful regulatory oversight.
Globally, and perhaps less tangibly, who is picking up the bill for the climate change which is a direct result of our over consumption and the actions of global corporations?
At Ethical Consumer we try to shine a light on these social and environmental injustices and to show a side of consumerism that the consumer rarely sees, a side that isn’t reflected in the price of product or what you see on the shop shelves or in corporate advertisements.
We help you to see behind the scenes of the economic system and the corporations and brands that profit from it. We help consumers to assess the true cost of what they buy.
We call this type of consumption ‘Ethical Consumption’ and not ‘Ethical Consumerism’.
How can we be ethical consumers?
We see individuals as more than simply consumers looking to buy as much as possible for the lowest prices. Instead we see people as part of communities who are trying to take into account society and the environment when they buy something (or choose not to buy something).
We all need to meet our basic needs, to buy food and clothes and entertainment, financial products, broadband and many other products and services. There is a growing movement of people who want to do this while making as little negative impact on as possible, or even making purchases that have a positive long-term impact.
At Ethical Consumer we research and publish shopping guides to a very wide range of goods and services, to help people select those which fit with their ethics, and avoid those which do not.
Being an ethical consumer doesn’t end with a print-out of your receipt. Being an active citizen is also important. That could mean joining a group like Extinction Rebellion or voting in a general election. We all need to participate to ensure that governments make the changes needed to help make changes in consumer markets.