Concepts of Ethical Consumerism and Consumer Activism

Concept of Ethical Consumerism

Over the last ten or twenty years, more and more people around the world, primarily in industrialized countries, have become better informed and more aware of the origins of the goods they purchase on a day-to-day basis, the buying policies and practices of the shops they visit and the policies and principles of the services they buy. In a growing number of cases, this increased awareness and knowledge is affecting consumer practices and may be the difference between someone buying a particular product or service or not. There are a number of reasons for this development, which is commonly referred to as “ethical consumerism”, or also “ethical consumption”, “ethical purchasing”, “moral purchasing”, “ethical sourcing”, “ethical shopping” or “green consumerism”.

Fundamentally, ethical consumerism is consumers taking responsibility for their decisions in purchasing goods and services. Two key elements that have contributed to this development and that are interrelated are the significant and rapid progress in Information and Communications Technologies, particularly internet-based, and the role of the media in exposing bad practices in global supply chains of goods and services. Consumers are more informed then before, due to the substantial amount of information available on the internet and media attention on life stories of exploited workers, sometimes children, who make products which are eventually sold in the west at many times the small amount of money they are paid in wages. All of which contributes to a very confusing picture for the average consumer, who is bombarded with messages of what to do or not to do.

Trade unions, charities and other civil society organisations the world over run regular campaigns to inform consumers of how the products and services they buy are manufactured, farmed or otherwise provided and produced, pointing out that a very obvious way to tackle poverty and inequality around the world would be to ensure that everyone enjoys decent working conditions and benefits from a living wage, access to adequate public services, particularly education, health and social protection, and a fulfilled and meaningful life. In this way, the fundamental principles of ethical consumerism are directly linked to the need for companies to be socially responsible in all aspects of their business activities.

In essence, therefore, “ethical consumerism” applies to the intentional purchase by a consumer of products and services that have been manufactured, processed or provided through ethical means, in other words, with minimal harm to or exploitation of humans, animals and/or the natural environment. Put simply, it is about buying products and services that are made and distributed under ethical conditions by companies that behave in an ethical and socially responsible manner.

Concept of Consumer Activism

Consumer activism is not a new concept and ethical consumerism is built on the foundations laid by social activists mainly in 20th century, but going back as far as the creation of cooperatives in the mid-19th century. Since the 1980s, an additional emerging form of consumer activism that has grown significantly in strength and influence has been so-called “green consumerism”, which is based on the impact of consumption on the environment.

The premise of this form of consumer awareness is to limit the impact of consumption on the environment to protect the well-being and interests of future consumers. While in the early stages of its existence, the green consumer movement remained on the margins of retailers’ radars, it gradually grew in importance and influence to the extent that today green “products” are growing in both number and scope, from vegetables and fruit, to green cars and electrical products. The movement generally promotes a message calling on consumers to be more careful and informed in their decision-making on consumption, although there is also a more radical element which recommends that people should make more effort to consume less in general to protect the environment and its capacity to provide for future generations.

Personal health and hygiene concerns have also played their part in promoting ethical consumption as citizens in industrialized countries pay greater heed to the increasing number of research reports into the effects of certain types of food and food-processing methods in terms of contemporary diseases and illnesses, such as cancer, obesity and diseases affecting the heart, the brain, the digestive and the respiratory systems, and so on. People generally pay more attention to their diet and therefore to the products they consume.

Consumer activism aims at ensuring value for money for those who consume, while protecting their interests and well-being as well as those of workers involved in local, national and global supply chains. Ethical consumerism further reinforces these principles and values by focusing on environmental protection and sustainable development. In its purest form, ethical consumerism is about purchasing goods and services that have been produced without harm to or exploitation of humans, animals or the environment.

In this respect, its philosophy appeals to the majority of consumers in the world as ideally most people would probably prefer to buy ethical products and services. The challenge is that the world is not “ideal” and consumers are obliged to make purchasing decisions based on a range of priorities and personal realities.

Four types of ethical buying, stating that ethical consumerism is just as much about supporting “good” companies and products as it is withdrawing support from the so-called “bad” ones:

  1. Positive buying: Favoring particular ethical products, such as energy-saving light bulbs.
  2. Negative purchasing: Avoiding products of which consumers may disapprove, such as eggs laid by battery hens or large cylinder cars which give out high carbon emissions.
  3. Company-based purchasing: Targeting a business as a whole and avoiding all the products made by one company, for example, through national and/or international boycotts.
  4. Fully-screened approach: Looking both at companies and at products and evaluating which product is the most ethical overall. This is the basis of the work of Ethical Consumer, which conducts research into a wide range of products and highlights what it terms “best buys”, which are essentially the most ethical, “fully screened” products that it can find. The results are then published in the Ethical Consumer Magazine.

One aspect of ethical consumption that should not be overlooked is recycling. Any form of consumption creates waste products. In most cases, this would be in the form of packaging of a wide variety of consumer products — even organic fruit and vegetable products are packaged to some extent.

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