FAIR TRADE, organic, opposing animal testing, and so forth - do these words seem familiar? Ethical consumption, a concept that encompasses all these words, is indeed the trend of the 21C. Though overwhelmed by a flood of products, we give a second look at the ones that boast a mark saying any of the phrases mentioned above. The phrase “this package is made from recycled paper” naturally makes us impressed, or perhaps relieved at having made our purchase from such an eco-friendly, “ethical” company.
Ethical consumption means making your purchases based on the consequences they bring to the environment, workers and many other elements that have to do with the making of products. A person who practices ethical consumption implies that he or she buys only products that have gone through a process that was morally defensible and harmless, if not contributive, to any person or the environment. These days, it is more challenging than ever to encounter a company that does not advertise its products with phrases that reflect this so-called ethical consumption trend.
Ethical consumption has become well established and has gained many avid advocates. However, before we choose to become ethical consumers, we should think about the possible drawbacks ethical consumption can have, especially with regard to “fair trade.” Before we focus on the ethical side of ethical consumption, we should pay our attention to its traits as a mode of consumption. That is, the phrase “ethical consumption” could be misused in corporate marketing as a means to attract charitable but unsuspecting consumers. Not only do companies overuse “fair trade” logos on their products, but they are also capable of making people believe that buying a certain product could do much good to workers in developing countries.
To some extent, this is true compared with numerous corporations notorious for manufacturing their products in sweatshops. Nevertheless, simply practicing ethical consumption does not address the core of the problem in many developing countries. For instance, poverty in Ethiopia, Columbia, Laos, Cambodia, and many more countries is connected to multiple issues including a nation’s economic policy and the power structure between employers and workers. The idea of ethical consumption regarding fair trade runs the risk of simplifying the problem, creating an illusion that deep-seated poverty in such countries could be solved merely by making smart purchases.
Also, while “fair trade” products are sold at significantly higher prices under the rationale of delivering more profits to workers suffering from poverty, this is far from enough to relieve them of their hardships. Some experts argue that fair trade can prevent workers from being entrenched in extreme poverty but does not empower them enough to improve their station in life. Of course fair trade provides one way to help alleviate poverty in developing countries. However, consumers in developed countries can lapse into a rather idealistic and naive view that their practices of ethical consumption will eradicate poverty and restore peace and harmony in countries that are suffering.
In essence, despite its good intentions and popularity, ethical consumption is prone to be misleading. It can deceive consumers into believing that their purchases of certain products are sufficient to make the world a better place, while in reality, they are overlooking many aspects of the problems in developing countries and also not making much of a difference. Upon encountering a product with a “fair trade” logo, do you conjure up an image of a happy family harvesting crops and enjoying a modest dinner? Acknowledging the limitations of such images created by corporate advertisements would be a crucial step toward focusing on the essence of myriad global issues we face today.