Ethical consumerism (alternatively called ethical consumption, ethical purchasing, moral purchasing, ethical sourcing, or ethical shopping and also associated with sustainable and green consumerism) is a type of consumer activism based on the concept of dollar voting. People practice it by buying ethically made products that support small-scale manufacturers or local artisans and protect animals and the environment, while boycotting products that exploit children as workers, are tested on animals, or damage the environment.

Areas of concern

Ethical Consumer Research Association collects and categorises information about more than 30,000 companies according to their performance in five main areas, composing the “Ethiscore”:

  • Environment: Environmental Reporting, Nuclear Power, Climate Change, Pollution & Toxics, Habitats & Resources
  • People: Human Rights, Workers’ Rights, Supply Chain Policy, Irresponsible Marketing, Armaments
  • Animals: Animal Testing, Factory Farming, Other Animal Rights
  • Politics: Political Activity, Boycott Call, Genetic Engineering, Anti-Social Finance, Company Ethos
  • Product Sustainability: Organic, Fairtrade, Positive Environmental Features, Other Sustainability.

There are two key criticisms of ethical consumerism: one practical, the other ethical.

The practical concern involves the difficulty that consumers face in finding and acting on the relevant information. In most cases, consumers know relatively little about how the products they buy were produced, or about the values of the individuals or companies the produced them. This is even more difficult given the complexity of modern global supply chains. Two relatively recent innovations go some distance to remedying this problem. One is product labelling and certification: some products are labelled in ways that indicate that they were produced in line with certain ethical values. Apples may be labeled “Organic,” for instance; paper might be labeled “100% Recycled;” canned tuna might be “Dolphin Friendly.” The other relevant innovation involves various ethical rankings of corporations, such as Corporate Knights’ “Global 100Most Sustainable Corporations” or Forbes magazine’s list of “The World’s Most Ethical Companies.”

One ethical concern regarding ethical consumerism is closely related to the practical concern: if the relevant information is not accurate, then ethics-based purchasing may be counter-productive. Boycotts, for example, may tend to punish the wrong people: for example, deciding not to vacation in a particular state because you don’t like the policies set by that state’s political leaders may do substantial harm to innocent parties in the travel industry, without having any impact at all on the political leaders involved. The other ethical concern has to do with the particular values that consumers act upon. Not all values are positive ones. A racist, for example, who refuses to buy from a store that employs visible minorities is acting on her values, but they are not ethically-good values.

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