Discussing the challenges and benefits of ethical consumption

Boston Review recently published its Citizen Consumer forum, featuring responses by labor experts, advocates and academics to an article by Dara O’Rourke on ethical consumption. O’Rourke, co-founder of Good Guide and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, weighs the impact of ethical consumerism on the marketplace and discusses some of the tools available to help consumers make smart decisions. Labor advocates – including FLA’s Auret van Heerden, Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, Juliet Schor of Boston College and others – responded to the article and offered their own perspectives on ethical consumption.

From Auret’s response:

As consumers, we face hundreds of choices each day: What kind of shampoo should I use? Where should I buy a cup of coffee? What brand of shoe is best for my workout?

For most consumers, the choice is automatic; many will select the cheapest option, while others will make their decisions on the basis of habit or social cues. Each of these factors poses barriers to ethical consumption, and NGOs and campaigns have focused on asking consumers to change in order to overcome those barriers.

Of course, NGOs have created some innovative tools to help consumers make ethical purchasing decisions more easily. These types of tools are essential, and many are Web-based so they can be consulted on smart phones. But there is still the problem of how to inform decision making at the point of sale. Activists have tried to guide shoppers by creating labels that should be instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, there is now a proliferation of labels, rankings, scorecards, guidelines, and phone apps that add further complication. And by asking consumers to consider so many issues—environmental health, resource conservation, ethical trade, workers’ rights, human rights, animal rights—we risk making them feel guilty if one of their favorite products falls short. This atmosphere of anxiety and judgment may be part of the reason why only a small percentage of consumers act on their convictions.

If you play out each scenario for making an ethical choice, you quickly realize the difficulties. One option is to research online the products you intend to buy before you go to the store. Possible, but not very practical, and of no help when it comes to the “impulse buy.” A little more likely is that you check labels to see if products have been certified by one of the initiatives that works on the issues that matter to you. Fair trade and organic products are easily identified, as are those that protect endangered species and certain scarce resources, such as ethically harvested woods. Those labels are generally reliable, especially when they deal with one standard, but the consumer can easily zone out when there are competing labels.

Click here to read the rest of the article and access the forum.

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