The dilemma of ethical consumption: how much are your ethics worth to you?
Everyone, rich and poor alike, should be able to buy the cheapest product with a clean conscience
In the lead-up to a recent buck’s party, the group chat turned to the age-old question: will there be strippers? After some back and forth (for the record, I was opposed), the groom-to-be stepped in with the veto. “No strippers!” he declared.
His reasoning demonstrated a remarkable level of self-knowledge. He explained that he was planning on the weekend being filled with inhibition-reducing substances and didn’t trust his addled self to make smart decisions.
In doing so, he gave voice to a basic moral principle: better to avoid temptation than to overcome it. From Mufasa to Gandalf – and the Lord’s Prayer – we’re told that while it’s good to be able to resist vice when it calls to us, there’s wisdom in arranging our lives in a way that minimises our exposure to vice altogether.
Unfortunately, that advice is nearly impossible to follow when it comes to participating in the market. Increasingly our decisions around what we buy come with a trade-off: the more sustainable, ethical, fair trade option or the cheaper, potentially dodgier one.
Take an easy example: eggs. Do you want to buy them from the farms that give the chooks the best quality of life (comparably speaking)? Free range, organic and more than twice the price of the quick-and-dirty caged eggs stashed at the bottom of the shelves. For many of us, this is a fairly straightforward choice – the price to put our money where our morals are is relatively low, though even here, the lower your budget, the harder the ethical choice becomes. What happens when we increase the costs?
If we stop thinking with our stomachs, the problems get even larger. I recently informed my financial planner that I wanted to move my superannuation to an ethical investment fund. He did his job and showed me the comparison. If fees and returns for each fund performed as they had been, in 30 years’ time my superannuation would be $300,000 worse off investing in an ethical fund. Lead us not into temptation indeed.
It’s the fault of a much larger system offering you choices that, in many cases, you shouldn’t be permitted to make
There are a few perversities here. The most galling to me is that pitting money against morality is a regressive dilemma. The people who can most afford to pay their ethical way are the uber rich; those battling against the poverty line don’t have the option but to become complicit in animal wellbeing issues and clothing made in questionable conditions. They certainly can’t justify moving to a higher-fee fund just because it doesn’t invest in coal or tobacco.
There seems to be something uniquely cruel about creating a system that determines ethical seriousness by purchasing behaviour, thereby stigmatising the poor and lightening the load on the wealthy. This only becomes more egregious when you consider the various ways in which wealth is accumulated under capitalism – often on the backs of the same workers who can’t afford not to be complicit in the ethical missteps that often end up lining the pockets of the very same elites who can then afford a clean conscience.
However, the choice remains difficult even for those who ostensibly can afford to take the financial hit for their ethics. It’s easy to compare the immediate, measurable and tangible cost difference of two products. Making a judgement regarding the vague, unquantifiable moral value of not investing in unethical practices or investing in exemplary ones is ambiguous. There’s no obvious benefit, and thanks to the anonymity of the global market, we usually don’t see the harms inherent in the products we’re being offered. That’s a recipe for rationalising the choice that’s better for us and ours, no matter what the costs are to anonymous people, animals and ecosystems.
There appears to be little out for those wanting to be ethical consumers on a budget. Compromises and trade-offs will need to be made. You’ll likely need to benefit from practices that don’t align with what you think is right. However, the lie at the heart of the ethical consumption movement is to tell you this is your fault. It’s not. It’s the fault of a much larger system offering you choices that, in many cases, you simply shouldn’t be permitted to make.
I don’t want to be given the choice between forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars and compromising on my values. I don’t want to be offered the opportunity to buy clothes that are cheaper for me because disempowered workers paid the price in underpayment and subjugation. It’s too easy to justify the worse option. It’s too easy to be tempted.
Thinking this way has reframed slightly the way I think about ethical consumption. In the past, I’ve assumed the appropriate emotion to accompany making a good moral purchase is pride. Recently, I’ve started to feel like resentment is a more accurate – and more motivating – emotion.
I resent that the same store from which I’m buying free range eggs is profiting not only from my ethical purchase but from the choice to render others complicit in animal cruelty. I resent that superannuation companies, refusing to divest from unethical and harmful products, are using the promise of a greater retirement fund and more money to pass on to future generations as bribes to make me compromise on my morality. I can’t be proud participating in a system where my ability to make ethical choices is based more on my bank balance than my character.
When the cheapest product, available to rich and poor alike, can also be purchased with a clean conscience? That’s when I think we’ll be able to take pride in our purchases.
• Matt Beard is an Australian moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre and a regular writer on philosophy and ethics. He has a PhD in military ethics and is the resident philosopher on the ABC kids ethics podcast Short & Curly
*Source The Guardian