Defining ethical consumption: a consumer’s perspective

earth-1996138__340Having finished the first round of analysis of my first “ethical consumer case”, I decided to put it aside and take some time to reflect upon ideas and insights it has given me. Several questions besiege my mind. One issue, of which I have been aware almost since the start of my research, concerns the difficulty of defining ethical consumption. Yet, I find it paramount to the goal of my study to understand what exactly ethical consumption means to my participants and what their ideas and ideals of food ethics are based on.

I have recently come across a particular definition of ethical consumption that provoked a lot of deliberations on my part. In his work on commodity fetishism in ethical consumption, Carrier (2010, p. 672) defines the latter as ‘the shaping of purchasing decisions by an evaluation of the moral attributes of objects on offer’. It took me some time to figure out what exactly I find so uncomfortable about this definition, and it is only by bringing my analysis of Lucy’s story to bear upon it that I could detect the fault. It seems to me that this definition oversimplifies and somehow impoverishes the social phenomenon of ethical consumption as it only acknowledges one part of the story, i.e. the attributes of the product. The very wording of it leaves out the essential constituent of the process – the ethical consumer as an active agent, capable of and willing to engage in moral reasoning. This oversight leads to another glaring omission. By overlooking the presence of distinct individuals, Carrier’s definition fails to acknowledge the role of the subjectivities of ethical consumers in shaping the concept and practice of ethical consumption. Yet, “the evaluation of the moral attributes of objects on offer” calls for an active subject by whom this moral evaluation is performed. And if so, shall we assume that this subject is a dispassionate actor engaging in a rational, deliberate assessment of the moral qualities – presumably objectively gauged and made known to consumers – of the products? And in this case, how does he choose which exact moral attributes to consider – environmental-friendly, fair trade, or animal cruelty-free? Or, alternatively, are ethical consumers individuals with distinct system of values, beliefs and deeply held moral principles which they can’t help but bring to bear upon their consumption decisions? And would it not be their unique moral outlooks that will determine which of the products’ ethical characteristics are of the highest relevance to them? For it seems beyond doubt to me that shopping decisions of a committed vegan will be guided by ethical considerations very different to those of an environmentally concerned person or a fair trade activist.

Thus, I would like to argue that ethical consumption is a much more complex phenomenon, involving an intricate interplay between the moral qualities of the products and those of the consumers, than Carrier’s definition seems to suggest. Indeed, were consumption ethics informed solely by the moral attributes of the products, one could expect a lot more uniformity and consistency in consumers’ understanding of what it means to consume ethically. Yet, no two participants in my study held one and the same idea of what food ethics are about and how one should live them out. Each of the individuals had his own image of an ideal responsible consumer and the moral standards that should guide his consumption decisions and acts. I keep coming back to Lucy’s case again. Her definition of ethical consumption as “Just that I have thought it through carefully and it fits with my conscience” is light years away from assessing the ethics of food simply by its moral attributes. While eating eggs might be morally reproachful from a strict vegan perspective, it still fits with Lucy’s idea of ethical consumption based on a deeply held moral principle of avoiding doing harm. “The reason why I eat eggs” – she explains – “I’ve got friends who keep chickens and I know that the chickens are perfectly happy – I’ve seen those chickens, it’s not doing them any harm laying those eggs”. Thus, it is not the intrinsic product qualities, but Lucy’s particular moral reasoning that makes eggs an acceptable element in her ethical consumption practice.

So it seems that purchasing decisions of ethical consumers are shaped not so much by an evaluation of goods’ moral attributes as by the individuals’ own moral principles, i.e. those norms that they have internalised and turned into their personal ethical benchmarks. The morality is indeed central here, but it is not the objective morality of the products, but the subjective morality of the individuals that informs their understanding of what ethical consumption means and which specific decisions and choices would best reflect this ideal vision. This reminds me of Archer’s (2000) argument about social judgements which, she argues, only matter to people if they happen to “gel” with their personal concerns. The point seems to be equally applicable to products’  moral attributes which, I suggest, will only be important to consumers if they happen to speak to their subjective moral ideals and concerns. Thus, someone oblivious of or indifferent to the issue of social justice will hardly be emotionally moved by the fair trade mark (and in the absence of emotional involvement with the cause an ethical action is unlikely to arise, see my previous blog post for further discussion on this).

It is for this reason that Coff’s (2006) approach to defining ethical consumption is much more appealing to me. His reference to Aristotelian idea of ethics as “striving for or aiming at the good” (Coff, 2006, p. 22) seems to point to the right way to make sense of my participants’ conception of ethics in general and ethical consumption in particular. Yet, defining the good is no less challenging than defining ethical consumption. I will pick up the discussion from this precise point next week to consider some perspectives on what might / should inform people’s ideas of the good.

References

Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

Carrier, J. G. (2010). Protecting the environment the natural way: ethical consumption and commodity fetishism. Antipode 42, pp. 672–89.

Coff, C. (2006). The taste for ethics: An ethic of food consumption (Vol. 7). Springer Science & Business Media.

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