By Jourdann Fraser '20
Organic, fair trade, free-range. It seems that in the last decade our culture has become obsessed with ethical consumerism, a form of social activism in which consumers buy from brands that try to minimize their impact on the environment. This can include buying organically producing food, making their clothes in worker-friendly factories, and providing animal welfare services. I was intrigued by this cause and decided to do some research of my own to learn how to shop more ethically. What I learned left me disheartened.
In general, ethical consumerism seems like a great way of giving back to the environment: by buying from only from companies that practice ethical standards, you are not only supporting that way of producing goods but you’re also practicing a more sustainable lifestyle. At least that’s what ethical consumerism is on the surface. But if you look deeper, you realize that your individual buying decisions may have little or no effect in the way major businesses produce their items. Ethical consumers believe that by buying ethically and boycotting stores that don’t participate in ethical production they’re making a huge difference in the practice of businesses. While this may be true on a micro-level, this type of thinking is ineffective in helping solve the root of the problem.
One reason is because there is a monopoly in the production of goods overseas. Companies usually hand over supplier decisions to huge conglomerates that don’t regulate the factories overseas. Unfortunately for the companies, they are unable to fully regulate the suppliers of their goods, resulting in a discrepancy between how the companies want their clothes to be produced and how it is actually being produced. One way to fix this problem would be working on actually solving the problems overseas instead of pointing them out. A great example of this is in Brazil where they have inspectors that visit different factories and write summaries about the problems in each factory and how they’re addressing them. These problems could include updating outdated machinery to reduce the amount of workers’ accidents or relocating farmers to prevent them from polluting the shore.
Another issue is the fact that consumers who can’t afford ethical products have no choice but to buy from unethical companies. Boycotting from a major consumer like TJ Maxx may seem like the way to participate if you have the means to buy from other companies that produce more ethical products. However, a lot of these items are expensive for middle- and low-income individuals, with clothes ranging from $30 to $100. This makes ethical consumerism unavailable to them. What ethical consumers should actually focus on is making the practice more affordable and accessible. Vintage stores may be the solution to this as they provide a way for consumers to purchase affordable clothes that are no longer doing any harm to the environment. Ethical consumers also need to realize that a change in the way businesses operate doesn’t only come from consumers’ spending habits. Thorough political advocacy and education, ethical consumers may have the ability to have stores be held accountable for the things they do to the environment.
Fast fashion is the third culprit of ethical consumerism. Fast fashion has been on the rise since 1960s. Prior to the 1950s there used to be around 2 fashion seasons per year - now there are around 52 fashion seasons. As a result, workers overseas don’t have time to plan out what they have to produce, making them practice unethical standards to keep up with the increasing demand. What ethical consumerism should focus on is consuming less so that you putting less pressure on the factory workers to make clothes.
Overall, even though ethical consumerism seems good in practice, it can actually be detrimental. I’m not saying ethical consumerism is a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be more useful and better for the environment if we actually try to make change not based on capitalistic measures, but on human measures.
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