The Issue of Ethical Consumption - The Meliorist - March 6th, 2014

When the Kony 2012 craze started, I knew very quickly that something just wasn’t right. The first video unsettled me in a way different from what the creators had intended. I felt unsettled because I knew that people’s desire to do good was being perverted. What I remember most was feeling surprised at how many leaped to defend the cause, even as more evidence of that perversion was leaked in the weeks that followed. Many argued that the Kony 2012 project was still worth our full support despite the overwhelming criticism, because it was still “a good cause.” A good cause, however, isn’t inherently immune to criticism. This is why I refuse to stop criticizing the current state of ethical consumption.

Ethical consumption is using consumer choice as an ethical or political action. If you’ve ever bought ethnic handicrafts to support an indigenous group, purchased fair-trade certified coffee over a comparable brand or joined in overseas voluntourism, you’ve participated in ethical consumption. An extremely simplified explanation of ethical consumption is that consumers justify choosing a difficult or expensive option if they think it’s a moral choice.

It seems like a smart idea. There are countless indigenous, ethnic and social groups that are economically disadvantaged by modern global capitalism. Ethical consumption, especially in the case of fair trade, is attempting to use the basic tenets of capitalism to fix the very inequalities capitalism has created. However, the good intentions of ethical consumption have largely become distorted through its application, both purposefully and accidentally.

Voluntourism is a special kind of ethical consumption. Instead of having a peaceful holiday at an all-inclusive resort, many pay to travel to impoverished areas and volunteer by building schools, digging wells or handing out medical supplies. Although admirable in principle, the flaws of voluntourism are numerous and range from the obvious to the subtle.

One of the biggest flaws of voluntourism is that it sends the largely unskilled to do highly skilled work. The average person doesn’t have the technical skills necessary in order to build a school from the ground up. What happens with voluntourism is that disadvantaged areas end up getting a bunch of students to dig ditches and wells when what they require is educated medical personnel to treat health issues.

Moreover, voluntourism often discourages local employment: why hire local and have to pay a wage when there are those who would pay you for the opportunity to do work? In an almost humiliatingly ironic and darkly comedic fashion, Westerners are heading out to remote areas in droves, only to end up stealing jobs!

The other more common forms of ethical consumption are the implementation of fair-trade agricultural and handicraft programs in disadvantaged indigenous areas. Companies like Ten Thousand Villages or Whole Foods advertise the socially responsible trade agreements that lead consumers to purchase specific products, often indigenous crafts or coffee and chocolate.

Selling indigenous handicrafts, however, is rife with possible missteps. The most common issue is that there is a Marianas trench-sized gulf between what we desire as consumers of “legitimate” ethnic handicrafts and what actually constitutes a “legitimate” ethnic handicraft. Western culture usually has a very specific perception of how legitimate ethnic materials should look. When actual indigenous handicrafts don’t fit this skewed perception, consumers are less likely to view them as legitimate. Indigenous handicraft manufacturers are now pressured to change their material creations to fit this Western ideal of ethnic legitimacy. It’s an unfortunate and near-accidental form of cultural appropriation.

Moreover, these products often only give a very small glimpse of an entire culture, and often without context. An entire culture, with centuries of detail and nuance, is boiled down to a single patchwork quilt or necklace of beads. This dehumanizes those who create these goods rather than humanizing them, and only continues to reinforce the “otherness” of the non-Western cultures.

Finally, there comes the issue of fair-trade certified foods and consumables. The most common of these are South American coffee or cocoa producers that are certified as receiving a sustainable deal for their production. The issue with this type of trade is that it often ignores more deep rooted issues in these areas. There are centuries of economic and social problems that sustainable agribusiness won’t be able to fix. Moreover, as not all groups can equally access fair-trade partnerships, it can create spheres of inequality within economically disadvantaged zones, further exacerbating existing tensions.

Despite my criticisms of the different kinds of ethical consumption, I do think it is a step in the right direction. Consumers have power within our capitalist society, but the important part comes in being a knowledgeable consumer. There are many flaws within the current system of ethical consumption, but as long as we are aware and vote correctly with our wallets, we can make strides in both the war against inequality and the war against ignorance.