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Can Ethical Consumerism Make a Difference?

by Jacob Sivyer

I would like to begin this blog with a thought experiment. In his essay "Famine, Affluence and Morality", Peter Singer asks you to imagine that whilst out walking you notice a child drowning in a pond. Saving this child would mean ruining your clothes; despite this, he asks if you would feel an obligation to rescue this child?


Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash

Perhaps I am begging the question here, but I imagine that everyone reading this instinctually felt obligated to help this child. I am also convinced that together we can agree that a child’s death is morally wrong regardless of their proximity or location. This leads Singer to argue that helping a dying child must have a principle of universalizability (applies universally) as it “makes no moral difference“ whether the child is our neighbour or resides across the globe. All seems plausible so far, right?

Well…here is where Singer asks a difficult question which we all must confront. Do we not then have the same moral obligation to help dying children in the developing world as we would to the child in the nearby pond?

If so, there is a potential constraint with respect to consumer behaviour: Instead of buying new non-essential clothes (which you would gladly ruin for the child in the pond) shouldn’t you rather donate to a charity which helps dying children across the world?

My intention is not to make the reader feel guilty for every time they have bought a pair of jeans rather than donate to Oxfam. Rather, this thought experiment highlights the phenomenon of cognitive disassociation. Cognitive disassociation occurs when we become disassociated from an ethical situation which, in turn, diminishes the moral responsibility that we feel for our actions (or inactions) that relate to it. This is highlighted above as we feel associated (and thereby morally responsible) to help the child in the nearby pond. Conversely, we feel much less moral responsibility for children dying across the world, due to the way we conceive of their distance from us.

This distance does not have to be physical but can be understood to include a range of non-physical factors as well, such as distinction by group. Consequently, we may theoretically agree that helping a dying child has a principle of universalizability but be "disinclined to act". Cognitive disassociation therefore leads to a problematic disparitybetween an individual’s moral convictions and their actions regarding certain ethical situations. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in our contemporary consumer landscape, between the consumer purchasing products and the processes by which they are made.

In the 21st century, "consumerism is an idea that is woven into the fabric of our modern society". Our supermarkets are stocked high with an array of goods all marketed to catch the consumer’s eye. The alluring exterior of these products can be worryingly misleading, however. Take, for example, the new iPhone. Its sleek exterior bears no semblance to the morally questionable processes that are a part of its creation.


Photo by Hardik Sharma on Unsplash

By November 2018 Apple had sold 2.2 billion iPhones and in 2016 amassed 80% of the worldwide profit on smartphones. These incredibly high profit margins are maintained, however, through paying their factory workers in China as little as 2100 Yuan per month (£252), less than a third of the average worker salary for the city.

The reader may also recall that iPhone factories became infamous in 2010 due to a number of suicides and sweatshop conditions being reported. Adding to the already growing list of moral concerns, child labour has been recorded within the mines that source raw materials for Apple. This reiterates the problematic disparity caused by cognitive disassociation, for in buying certain products, we often support production processes that entirely contradict our moral convictions.


Time for change?

A growing movement called ethical consumerism promises to address this disparity by reducing our cognitive disassociation from the products we buy. Ethical consumerism is founded on the premise that we do not only consume finished products "but also, implicitly, the processes used to produce them". Ethical consumerism therefore encourages individuals to become aware of the ethical and environmental implications of their consumer choices, by offering informationon about the production processes for consumer goods.

Consequently, ethical consumerism increases our sense of moral responsibility for our consumer choices by significantly reducing the cognitive disassociation between what we buy and how it is made.This finds application in our everyday lives by encouraging us to buy ethically produced products that benefit the environment and society. Ethical consumerism is currently flourishing, exemplified by research showing that 56% of American consumers have boycotted companies that they believe are unethical. Additionally in 2018 the UK spent over £83bn on ethical goods, suggesting that "more consumers than ever are looking for ways to shop that help people and the planet".

The thriving of ethical consumerism is largely attributed to the rise of global interconnectivity. This interconnectivity means that the production processes for our consumer goods are no longer distant realities from which we are largely disassociated. Instead, we are now confronted personally through an array of mediums ranging from novels to Netflix.

Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, for instance, gives vivid accounts of working conditions in sweatshops for prevalent high street companies. Additionally, the Netflix documentary series Rotten, provides evocative accounts of the unsavoury truths about our food supply chain. Such examples have caused consumers to recognise a key premise of ethical consumerism, that "our choices about what to buy have far-reaching consequences around the world". Our association to these consequences empowers us as consumers to recognise our ability to "address global issues" by changing our patterns of consumption.

Positive News attributes the success of ethical consumerism to consumers "choosing to spend their money in ways that line up with their values". This highlights how ethical consumerism can succeed in addressing the problematic moral disparity (between an individual’s actions and their moral convictions) caused by cognitive disassociation.

There is still a long way to go, however. In the meanwhile, what we can take away from the case of ethical consumerism is not so much advice about what to buy and what to boycott, but rather the need to be aware that behind each good we buy is a network of ethical relations to people we do not know. Such an awareness could reduce the degree of disassociation, and at the very least, it will result in us making more informed choices that are in line with our respective moral values.

The most empowering thing about being an ethical consumer is that the choice lies with you. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "be the change you want to see in the world".

By becoming an ethical consumer, you are doing exactly that!

About the Author

Jacob Sivyer is a second year philosophy student at the University of Kent. His areas of interest include existentialism, philosophy of religion and the philosophy of spirituality. In his spare time he enjoys walking, reading, hiking and travelling.

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