Credit: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash

Breaking news: there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism

By Janka Deàk

From veganism to vintage shopping, how futile are our attempts at being ethical in a capitalist world?

When I first read the statement, my knee-jerk reaction was immediate, harsh rejection. Of course there is, there must be. There’s no way a statement so absolutely demoralising could be true. And even if it is, people can’t genuinely subscribe to it, right? How could anyone with a shred of critical thought and basic morality take such a cynical, defeatist sentiment at face value? Accepting the idea that capitalism makes ethical consumption impossible promotes an all or nothing mentality, spurring apathy and providing all the excuses some people need for inaction. The most dangerous thing one can do is to decide to do nothing and believe that their choice was justified because it wasn’t really their decision to make – shirking personal responsibility, blaming the system, sacrificing agency for the comfort of “forced”, externally determined inaction. If I can’t be fully ethical, why even try? What a cop-out.

Then it hit me. I felt so slow. This is what the statement was supposed to achieve. Radical sounding, overtly agitational and totally polarizing, the intent was always to provoke thought. And oh boy, were my thoughts provoked. 

I firmly believe that we as consumers have a moral obligation to strive towards ethical consumption in a system where our money is our vote. In the West, we have the resources to limit our consumption and shop ethically. It’s our responsibility, seeing as we’re the greatest beneficiaries of exploitation under capitalism; as the biggest consumers, our tendencies influence production and shape the global market. A conscious effort could lead to systemic change, so we should all do as much as our finances, time, and mental health allow us to. Right?

“I firmly believe that we as consumers have a moral obligation to strive towards ethical consumption in a system where our money is our vote.”

Ethical consumption, by definition, entails buying goods that were produced and distributed without causing harm. Capitalism is built on and sustained by the corporate exploitation of labour – the modern-day slavery of sweatshops, child labour, forced work. It promotes overproduction and overconsumption, doing immeasurable harm to both workers and the environment. You can’t consume without causing harm in a system built on for-profit exploitation; all consumption within the constraints of a capitalist economy is unethical because it (if indirectly) upholds the system. Convincing ourselves that our consumption is ethical has the same consequences as dismissing the concept of ethical consumption as a whole. Same comfort, same self-imposed inaction, except this time it carries the illusion of morality and goes unquestioned.

“You can’t consume without causing harm in a system built on for-profit exploitation…”

Then there’s the question of viability. Only a fraction of the goods available to us are ethically sourced. Say I have the time and money to scour the store shelves for sustainably and ethically sourced products. There’s no guarantee I’ll find everything I’m looking for. There’s no guarantee I’ll be able to get it next time. People have been trying to do this for years, using middle-class privilege to “shop better”. But to what effect? My mum buying eco milk and Fairtrade coffee hasn’t changed anything in the grand scheme of things. Individual solutions won’t address the root of the problem. As long as capitalism is in place, the best we can do is attempt to consume ethically – our personal choices affect little change aside from giving us a feeling of moral satisfaction in how we participate in capitalism. It sounds a bit cynical, but it’s true. Ethical consumption is framed as a moral dilemma for everyone in an attempt to distract from the systemic causes of exploitation by shifting the blame onto the individual. Media campaigns pushing for ethical consumption distract from and protect the profits of major corporations, all the while holding us responsible for their wrongdoing.

So, the statement isn’t a defeatist excuse not to take responsibility, but a reminder of where the blame lies; not with the consumer, but with the corporations who perpetuate a cycle of exploitation for profit.

This doesn’t mean we should accept our fate and go buy an entire wardrobe’s worth of stuff off of Shein. Not using our vote to effect change would be to fully accept the system and our place in it. The best way for us consumers to effect change is to stop conforming to the capitalist modes of consumption; shop sustainably, boycott unethical businesses, and use our money and voices to demand legislation defending the environment and workers’ rights to a liveable wage. The statement underestimates what we can do to be more ethical in our consumption, however, we tend to overestimate; it serves as an important reminder that our job is never done. So, while the sentiment is technically correct, it doesn’t give us an excuse not to try.


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