What is ethical consumerism?
Compare Ethics define ethical consumerism as “a form of political activism based on the principle that buyers in markets purchase goods associated with positive responsible environmental and social processes.”
Is it easy to make responsible consumer choices?
The halo effect of commonly used terms in the marketing of “ethical” products can mean despite best intentions, our purchases are not always as responsible as we think they are. However, there is a growing understanding of this amongst consumers, especially in 2021 as our environmental awareness has been sharpened by the COVID-19 pandemic (BCG, 2020). Ethical Hour highlight that in 2020, The Knowledge is Power – Consumer Trust in Sustainability Report “found that shoppers are increasingly doubtful of sustainability information provided by the brands themseves.”
Beware of the Halo Effect
Here are just a few examples of words with positive connotations we are used to seeing on all sorts of packaging and why we need to be careful or at least mindful:
Biodegradable - This is a much overused and misleading term that consumers should watch out for. When used correctly it refers to items that degrade in a realtively short space of time and meet certain standards. There are a great many factors at play which are detailed in the recent A Review of Biodegradable Plastics by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovaton Centre. Almost everything is technically biodegradable; even plutonium will eventually become part of the earth’s natural elements but will take tens of thousands of years to do so (Purdue University, 2002).
Natural Product – This can be defined as a chemical substance provided by a living organism. What not all consumers may be aware of is that a substance can be considered a natural product even if it is prepared by total synthesis.
Organic – The Conversation explain that most regulations relating to the use of the word organic relate to foods and that it is common for it to be misused in non-food items. There have been several lawsuits settled in relation to companies misrepresenting their products.
Recyclable – Whilst it is hugely important we recycle we must not forget it is an industrial process that requires energy. We as consumers should be mindful of the lower impact options of re-using or upcycling instead. Forge Recycling define upcycling as “taking an item that would otherwise be waste and improving it in some way to make it useful again.”
How to shop ethically
Shop Ethical suggest ‘positive buying’ is arguably the most important way a consumer can act as it directly supports progressive companies. Positive buying is favouring ethical products such as fair trade, organic or cruelty free. Consumers can of course go further than this by avoiding products or companies they consider damaging to people or the planet.
Informed decisions are key
What is especially important though is to be able to make well-informed decisions. Understanding how companies operate and market their products is crucial to ensuring our consumer choices are genuinely ethical and responsible.