Is there such a thing as ethical consumerism?

Aziz Abro
6 min readFeb 15, 2023
Outline given at the end of the essay! (image source)

Consumerism is the social and economic phenomenon of increasing consumption of goods and services. It is often associated with capitalism, globalization, and mass production. Ethical consumerism is the idea of choosing to consume goods and services that are ethically produced, such as fair trade, organic, cruelty-free, or environmentally friendly products. Ethical consumerism aims to reduce the negative impacts of consumerism on people, animals, and the planet. However, is there such a thing as ethical consumerism? Can consumerism ever be ethical? This essay will argue that there can never be such a thing as ethical consumerism because the very idea of growth and prosperity through increasing levels of consumption is ethically wrong on many levels.

One of the main reasons why consumerism can never be ethical is that the production of consumer goods is driven by the goal of growing sales and profits, not necessarily by the goal of benefiting the consumer or the society. Consumer goods are often designed to be obsolete, disposable, or addictive, in order to create artificial demand and encourage repeat purchases. For example, fashion companies constantly change their styles and trends, making consumers feel outdated and pressured to buy new clothes. Technology companies release new versions of their products every year, making consumers feel inferior and compelled to upgrade their devices. Food and beverage companies add sugar, salt, and fat to their products, making consumers crave more and more of their products. These practices not only exploit the consumer’s psychology, but also create a culture of wastefulness and dissatisfaction.

Another reason why consumerism can never be ethical is that consumerism is often a form of conspicuous consumption, which means consuming goods for the sake of displaying social status and wealth, rather than for the sake of fulfilling genuine needs or desires. Conspicuous consumption is influenced by the corporate manipulation of consumer psychology, such as advertising, branding, and peer pressure. For example, luxury brands use their logos, prices, and exclusivity to create a sense of prestige and superiority among their consumers, who then use their products to signal their social class and identity. Social media platforms also fuel conspicuous consumption, as consumers use them to showcase their lifestyles, possessions, and experiences, and to compare themselves with others. Conspicuous consumption not only creates a sense of envy, insecurity, and dissatisfaction among consumers, but also reinforces social inequalities and injustices.

A third reason why consumerism can never be ethical is that consumerism has a huge human cost, especially for the workers who produce the consumer goods. Consumerism relies on the exploitation of cheap labor, often in developing countries, where workers are subjected to low wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, and human rights violations. For example, the garment industry is notorious for its sweatshops, where workers are paid as little as $3 a day, work up to 16 hours a day, and face hazards such as fires, collapses, and violence. The electronics industry is also infamous for its use of child labor, forced labor, and toxic materials, such as in the mining of cobalt, a key component of batteries. The workers who produce the consumer goods are often the ones who benefit the least from consumerism, as they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and oppression.

A fourth reason why consumerism can never be ethical is that consumerism has harmful effects on animals and their habitats. Consumerism is responsible for the massive exploitation and destruction of animals, both wild and domesticated, for the sake of satisfying human wants and needs. For example, the meat and dairy industry is one of the largest contributors to animal suffering, as billions of animals are raised, confined, and slaughtered every year, often in cruel and inhumane ways. The leather and fur industry is another source of animal cruelty, as animals are skinned alive, electrocuted, or gassed for their skins. The cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry is also guilty of animal abuse, as animals are used for testing and experimentation, often resulting in pain, injury, or death. Consumerism also threatens the survival of many animal species, as their habitats are destroyed by deforestation, mining, agriculture, and urbanization.

A fifth reason why consumerism can never be ethical is that consumerism is the main cause of environmental degradation and climate change. Consumerism is responsible for the excessive use of natural resources, such as water, land, and energy, and the generation of huge amounts of waste and pollution, such as plastic, carbon, and chemicals. Consumerism is also responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. Global warming, in turn, leads to a variety of environmental problems, such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and food insecurity. Consumerism is endangering the health and well-being of not only the current generation, but also the future generations.

Some might argue that consumerism can be ethical, as it has brought many benefits to the world, such as economic growth, poverty reduction, and consumer choice. They might also argue that ethical consumerism can be employed to steer corporate policies in a way that they become less harmful for people, animals, and the planet. However, these arguments are not convincing, as they ignore the fundamental incompatibility of ethics and consumerism.

First of all, the benefits of consumerism have been unevenly distributed and have come at a great cost. While consumerism has enabled some people to enjoy higher standards of living and access to more goods and services, it has also widened the gap between the rich and the poor, both within and between countries. Consumerism has also created a system of dependency and inequality, where the wealth and power of the developed countries are based on the exploitation and oppression of the developing countries. Moreover, the benefits of consumerism have been short-lived and unsustainable, as they have depleted the natural resources and damaged the environment that are essential for human survival and well-being.

Secondly, ethical consumerism is not a viable solution, as it is ineffective, impractical, and contradictory. Ethical consumerism is ineffective, as it relies on the voluntary and informed actions of consumers, who are often unaware, indifferent, or powerless to make ethical choices. Ethical consumerism is also impractical, as it is limited by the availability, affordability, and accessibility of ethical products and services, which are often scarce, expensive, and inconvenient. Ethical consumerism is also contradictory, as it does not challenge the underlying logic and values of consumerism, such as growth, profit, and status. Ethical consumerism is merely a way of making consumers feel better about their consumption, without actually changing their consumption patterns or behaviors.

In conclusion, there can never be such a thing as ethical consumerism, because the very idea of growth and prosperity through increasing levels of consumption is ethically wrong on many levels. Consumerism is unethical, as it exploits and harms the consumer, the worker, the animal, and the planet. Consumerism is also irrational, as it contradicts the physical and ecological limits of the Earth. Consumerism is also unsatisfying, as it creates a culture of discontentment and dissatisfaction. Consumerism is not the answer to the human quest for happiness and meaning. Consumerism is the problem that needs to be solved.

Essay Outline

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Aziz Abro

Technical Content Writer by profession, blogger by hobby | CSS Aspirant | Tech Enthusiast | NUST Grad