Ethical consumption: the wealthy and the not-so-rich

rich-vs-poorI have recently come across an interesting article which appeared in The Guardian newspaper back in 2007 under a revealing title “Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are”. Written by a well-known UK environmental activist and journalist George Monbiot, it harshly criticized ethical consumption as an exclusive province of the moneyed classes – the idea that is widely circulated in a media and public discourse on green consumption. In fact, Monbiot was not the first to articulate these feelings – a year earlier, writing for the New Internationalist, Jess Worth condemned ethical shopping as merely “yet another way in which the poor are being disenfranchised”. In 2010, Rob Harrison, the editor of the Ethical Consumer, retorted the criticism by offering historical and statistical counter-evidence to the perception of ethical consumption as the prerogative of the rich. Last year I too wrote a post where I hoped to offer a somewhat balanced perspective on the relationships between ethical consumption and class. Today I return to the topic as I feel that the empirical data I’ve garnered enables me to make some more contributions to the debate.

The claims about a direct link between income and ethical consumption seem to be based on the fact that organic and fair-trade goods are usually sold at considerably higher price leading critics to argue that conscientious shopping can only be afforded by those on high incomes. However, as I noted in the last year’s post – and it is indeed worth reiterating the point – many ethical practices can be embraced by consumers at a low or absolutely no cost (e.g. choosing low-carbon options, recycling, reducing food waste, using leftovers, etc.), while going meat-free for at least a couple of days per week will actually help to reduce the food bills. Thus, the argument about the prohibitive costs of ethical consumption seems to simply overlook the vast array of consumer practices, choices, and acts that fall under the term.

My research data offers multiple illustrations of the variety of ways in which individuals understand and realise the idea of food ethics. It is important to mention that out of ten individuals who took part in my study – all ideological supporters and active practitioners of various forms of ethical consumption – only one interviewee reported no concerns about the cost of her food shopping (being retired and having no significant financial obligations, she could afford quite a generous food budget), whereas all others were rather restricted in their financial abilities and had to carefully watch their food spending. Unsurprisingly, among  my study subjects shopping for premium priced products such as organic or fair-trade was neither the only nor even the primary way to manifest oneself as an ethical consumer. Instead, participants embraced a variety of ethical consumption activities, many of which did not rely on spending a lot of money and, in fact, had the lack thereof at their very basis. Thus, Solveig is keen on freeganism and considers dumpster diving a good way to feed yourself while simultaneously addressing the problem of food waste; Joe is currently exploring the possibilities of downshifting and experimenting with different vegan meals in search of the most cost-effective and resource-efficient weekly menu; Darren is organising an allotment collective – a team of volunteers to grow organic food for personal consumption as well as for charity; Lila entered a buying group which regularly orders fair trade and organic foodstuffs in bulk directly from a wholefoods supplier at much more affordable prices; and almost all participants were committed to buying fresh produce from independent  groceries in a bid to support small-scale farmers and local businesses. Vegan and vegetarian participants were all able to pursue their ethics at no extra cost – in fact, the opportunity to cut grocery bills on a meat-free diet was commonly mentioned. Those who for various reasons – from convenience to inaccessibility of better options – rely on supermarket shopping, devise their own ways to consume ethically while sticking to tight budgets. Maggi ensures a continuous supply of preferred foodstuffs by seeking out special offers and deals – once a bargain is found, she places a bulk order which usually lasts her until the next deal is offered in-store. David, a graduate student with no secure income, is a regular patron of Waitrose – arguably the most expensive site for an ethical shopper – where the reduced price section is his constant source of otherwise unaffordable goods. These examples showcase how consumers as creative agents are able to push the boundaries of what is affordable or accessible to them in their given circumstances. They demonstrate that certain ethical food practices actually help to save money, others can be pursued at no or very little additional cost, while goods that do carry a high price tag can be made more affordable through exercise of consumer creativity and skills.

I therefore want to argue for the need to reconsider the perception of ethical marketplace as merely “a playground for the middle classes”. The short-sightedness of this argument becomes apparent once one breaks away from the extremely limited idea of ethical food practices as being just about leisurely shopping for conspicuously labelled fair trade and organic products in upper-class stores and, in fact, once one begins to understand food consumption not merely as shopping for, but as provisioning of goods and take it outside the physical boundaries of specialised stores, supermarket sections, or farmer’s markets to account for the multiplicity of ways in which individuals may feed themselves as well as the multiplicity of ways in which they can do it more ethically.

References

Harrison, R. (2010). Ethical consumption and social class. Ethical Consumer. [online] Available at: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/commentanalysis/consumerism/ethicalconsumptionamiddleclassdistraction.aspx [Accessed 23 May 2015].

Monbiot, G. (2007, July 24). Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jul/24/comment.businesscomment [Accessed 23 May 2015].

Worth, J. (2006, November 3). Buy now, pay later. New Internationalist. Available at: http://newint.org/features/2006/11/01/keynote/ [Accessed 23 May 2015].

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