Ethical consumption: a universal terrain or a middle class playground?

Different-kind-of-rich-consumersIn continuation of the series of discussions on the economics and politics of ethical consumption, I now turn to consider a widespread notion of ethical shopping as just yet another way of middle class distinction.

Indeed, while many commentators sing the praises of ethical consumption as a new form of political engagement and an “individualized collective action” (Micheletti, 2003), others point out that it represents anything but a democratic way of political activism and expressing citizenship for it is only open to those who have enough financial resources to make personal investments to the common social good. Indeed, a comparative assessment of 75 products at the top six UK grocery stores revealed that ethical goods come with an average price premium of approx. 45% (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2008). And this has not just economic implications. While on the one hand ethical consumption may represent a “feel-good-about-yourself” pursuit for those who can afford it (for a detailed and engaging discussion of the relationships between fair trade consumption, moral reflexivity and social class see Adam and Raisborough, 2008), on the other hand those whose budgets are too tight to allow for an expression of one’s ethical self through the daily buying practices, inability to engage in a more “benign” way of shopping may result in an acute feeling of guilt. I have previously mentioned the PwC report indicating that nearly half of UK consumers are unable or unwilling to pay a premium price for ethical products (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2008). What I haven’t yet mentioned is that the same report revealed growing environmental awareness among UK shoppers. These two statistical facts combine to lend support to a theory of “a guilty shopper”, as I think it can be quite appropriately called, – a market-produced consumer who, being aware of and increasingly sensitized to the current environmental and societal challenges and yet unable to financially support his or her ethical imperatives, is bound to a constant feeling of guilt for the “bad” and progressively frowned upon shopping choices he has no other choice (notice the paradox) but make.

There is another view of the issue, though. Firstly, while it is true that organic and Fair Trade do come with significant price premiums, other ethical attributes can be embraced by consumers at absolutely no cost. Low carbon products, recyclable packaging (or less or no packaging at all for that matter) and generally more efficient resource use and waste management  are all not just entirely affordable practices but can actually represent significant cost savings as, for example, energy-efficient light bulbs. Such downshifting is, in fact, a new trend which provides for a convenient marriage of consumers’ increasingly pressing environmental and financial concerns (Flatters and Willmott, 2009).

Some go as far as to reject the entire view of ethical consumption as an exclusively middle class privilege. Littler (2011), for instance, argues (quite justly) that being financially endowed does not necessarily mean having environmental concerns or acting upon them. On the other hand, many less well-off consumers embrace the idea of responsible shopping, and associations between working class people and ethical consumerism are exemplified in such historical events as, for instance, American housewives’ boycotts of supermarkets with exploitative labor practices or the development of the co-operative movement in the UK (p.35). Contemporary statistics also show that ethically oriented consumers are increasingly found not just among wealthiest populations of the world with China, Brazil, Mexico and India actually outweighing UK, USA or Germany by the number of people prepared to pay ethical premiums (Havas Media, 2007 cited in Carrigan and Pelsmacker, 2009, p. 681).  In the words of Charlie Mayfield (cited in PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2008, p.4):

I think consumers are already showing signs of a real willingness to change their behaviour when it comes to the whole area of sustainability… I don’t think this issue is confined to being a concern for the middle classes. I think it is pretty universal.

And although the Chairman of John Lewis probably has his own reasons to call for a universal environmentalism, it might be that the ethical goods market will, indeed, become a little bit more inclusive and a little bit less privileged in the not-so-distant future.



 Adams, M., & Raisborough, J. (2008). What can sociology say about FairTrade? Class, reflexivity and ethical consumption. Sociology, 42(6), 1165-1182.

Carrigan, M., & De Pelsmacker, P. (2009). Will ethical consumers sustain their values in the global credit crunch? International Marketing Review, 26(6), 674-687.

Flatters, P., & Willmott, M. (2009). Understanding the post-recession consumer. Harvard Business Review, 87(7-8), 106-12

Lewis, T., & Potter, E. (Eds.). (2011). Ethical consumption: A critical introduction. Routledge.

Littler, J. (2011). What’s Wrong with Ethical Consumption? in Lewis, T., & Potter, E. (Eds.). Ethical consumption: A critical introduction. Routledge, London, pp. 27-39.

Micheletti, M. (2003). Political virtue and shopping: Individuals, consumerism, and collective action. Palgrave Macmillan.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers, London. PriceWaterhouseCoopers. (2008). Sustainability: Are Consumers Buying It?


One response to “Ethical consumption: a universal terrain or a middle class playground?

  1. Pingback: Ethical consumption: the wealthy and the not-so-rich | ediblematters·

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