The Reality of Ethical Consumption

Is it possible to save the planet from one’s selections in his or her own local supermarket? While some would argue that small individual decisions in the supermarket fail to have a lasting impact on a larger scale, there continue to be many consumers who seek specific lifestyles such as vegetarianism, organic, or free-trade. Even while being aware of certain injustices in the world, consumers continue to habitually purchase items they are accustomed to. This prompts the question: Why is it so difficult to be an ethical consumer? To further my understanding, I interviewed a former alumnus of the Chocolate class (referred to as Mr. T) in order to better understand how his decisions regarding general food purchases (and specifically chocolate) have been impacted since becoming aware of ethical production practices and graduating college. Through an analysis of his commentary, it becomes evident that routine ethical consumption is hindered by price value, deep seated consumer habits, and the variance in social reward.

Is it possible to save the world from one’s local supermarket?

First, what does it mean to be an ethical consumer? Cooper-Martin and Holbrook  describe ethical consumer behavior as “decision-making, purchases and other consumption experiences that are affected by the consumer’s ethical concerns” (Cooper-Martin and Holbrook 1993). Thus it is the conscientious effort in one’s consumption habits based on moral qualms that pertain to a particular individual. In general, it is very easy to get information about ethical consumption, whether it’s hearing it from the news or friends sharing knowledge. For example, many consumers are aware that a large percentage of manufactured goods in the United States are produced by the labor of Chinese factory workers. Even though labor practices in China have been described as inhumane, the relatively cheap manufacturing and production costs allow a market within the United States to flourish, with many American consumers buying these products without a second thought. However, it then becomes necessary to make the distinction between being an ethical consumer of necessities versus luxuries.

While ethical considerations can be considered for both necessities and luxuries, it is more justifiable to be critical of the behavior for the latter. When asked about his consumption patterns, Mr. T replied that when buying items deemed as necessities such as food, gas, and household supplies, he would opt for the most convenient or cheapest option, without really considering the ethical implications. This notion of price being a limiting factor in purchase decisions is not a new one by any means. In a study done by Bray et al., researchers attempted to find the root behind the failure of consistent ethical consumption, and found that “focus group participants often mentioned price, suggesting that they cared more about financial than ethical values, particularly with reference to food and other frequently purchased items” (Bray et al. 2011). When an individual has to purchase necessities on a weekly or perhaps even more frequent basis, consciously selecting the more “ethically considerate” item can quickly add up to cause financial distress. This idea is fleshed out in a 2008 comic by Tom Fishburne, in which the consumer has a dilemma: whether to shop ethically and think about the environmental impact of everything she buys, or realizing that the economy is in a recession and deciding to “screw the environment… buy the cheapest crap you can find” (Fishburne 2008). In good economic times, it is much easier to be conscious of the far-reaching decisions one makes because that is a financial luxury they can afford — however, when times are tough and money needs to be conserved, consumers will most likely prioritize their own economic well being over others.

Despite price being a primary motivator in consumer behavior, another prevalent hindrance to ethical consumption is brand loyalty and the repeated purchases of particular products from selective locations. One corporation that seeks to specifically cater to the morally conscious consumer is Whole Foods Market, whose goal is to make them “feel good about where [they] shop.” Whole Foods Market offers a wide selection of Free-trade, organic, and Non-GMO products to provide a different shopping experience, one where consumers are expected to purchase more expensive goods to receive a morally pleasing trip to the market. In fact, customers (including Mr. T) have described the experience as visiting a “food playground.” The mission of Whole Foods Market is threefold: (1) environmental sustainability (e.g., local or organic food, biodegradable packaging); (2) labor justice (e.g., organic production as safer for workers, fair trade); and (3) community building (e.g., shopping at a local market to strengthen community relationships) (Johnston 2011). By developing a consumer base that prioritizes advocating social issues through their purchases, Whole Foods Market has thrived even during trying economic times through successful brand marketing. However, critics of the “feel good” concept Whole Foods Market is advertising note that habitual shopping there perpetuates an socioeconomic and class-segregated food system in which not all people with positive intentions are able to shop at. Adam and Raisborough note that globally, Fair Trade certified products saw a 47% increase in sales ($2.4 billion) in 2007 from its previous year, causing various businesses and marketing companies to profile and identify “the ethical consumer” and “exploring their ‘ethical awareness’ in relation to purchase behavior” (Adam and Raisborough). Mr. T believes that “Whole Foods is trying to make people feel like they are doing a good thing, which is sometimes true, but the problem is if more companies end up pretending to be moral,” in the hopes of serving the same privileged customer base. As that particular customer base tends on average to be of higher socioeconomic status, the distinction between what is a necessity and a luxury becomes a bit more blurred, and as such, they are more susceptible to morally targeted marketing claims.

Whole Foods Chocolate Section

This blurring of the line between necessity and luxury is readily apparent by the existence of the huge chocolate section of Whole Foods Market, which is filled with a large variety of single source, environmentally aware, and fair trade chocolates. In Sweetness and Power, Mintz goes through how sugar (and its related goods) evolved from a rarity in the 1600s, to a luxury by 1750, to finally a necessity in Western culture by 1850 (Mintz 78). Although any product that needs to be advertised is not a necessity, if chocolate were simply a luxury in this instance, there would be no need for such a diverse selection of chocolates; for some, chocolate has essentially become a necessity in their lifestyle. The manner in which the chocolate is advertised to these particular individuals is quite interesting. For example, the Equal Exchange chocolate has a picture of the cacao farmer plucking a cacao seed on the cover, with the tagline “from small farmers with love.” Furthermore, the phrase “fairly traded” is repeated three times on the front, in addition to the “fair trade certified” logo — it’s pretty clear that the advertisers of this chocolate are really trying to drive home the point that this chocolate is fairly traded, and that by purchasing this chocolate, the consumer can feel good about his or her decision as it more directly benefits the farmer and his quality of life.

Equal Exchange Chocolate (note the multiple prints of “Fairly Traded”)

Yet despite being aware and knowledgeable about the controversies which surround chocolate, many consumers forego their “morals” and end up buying cheaper and (for some) tastier chocolate as the tangible benefits outweigh the immediate intangibles. Mr. T, having taken the chocolate class, is definitely one of the more aware individuals regarding the issues of how and where chocolate is sourced, yet more often than not he claims he reaches for the Cookies and Cream Hershey’s Bar over the fair trade chocolate. He especially notes that he now is actively aware whenever he makes the decision, having learned about fair trade as well as ethical consumption, but it’s difficult to become an ethical consumer himself, and he believes that his singular purchase won’t make a significant difference. He believes that “the solution is not to buy the one that says fair trade, but rather the big name companies need to be held more accountable in how the chocolate is sourced — it’s way too hard to ask the consumers to merge social activism with a snack you’re craving.” This sentiment is not foreign by any means;  Johnston describes one particular consumer who “acknowledged a more general tension between her desire to support social justice initiatives, and her desire for delicious-tasting food: ‘’I do try to get fair trade products. But sometimes, like for example, chocolate, I’m just not sure if it tastes as good’” (Johnston 2011). Consumers in a capitalist society will generally shift towards a prioritization of their pleasures over their ideals, believing that “citizenship ideals as too time consuming or costly to incorporate into their shopping routines” (Johnston 2011). It’s difficult to change consumption habits, especially when they go against the individual’s pleasure preferences.

Getting information about ethical consumption is simple enough — it’s acting upon it that’s the real challenge. Although it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to consider the ethical ramifications of their purchases, the first step in a global solution would be to disseminate knowledge widely so that individuals are at least aware of their actions. The next step could include pressuring companies to be held more accountable for their actions in the production and manufacturing of their chocolate by establishing investigative groups that would determine whether standards such as no child labor, fair wages, and reasonable working conditions are being properly upheld by the companies. Even if we can’t always change the human desire to prioritize pleasure over ideals, we can always strive to try to make this world that we live in a little more sustainable and equitable for all.

Works Cited

Adams, Matthew, and Jayne Raisborough. “Making a Difference: Ethical Consumption and the Everyday.” The British Journal of Sociology 61.2 (2010): 256-74. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2015.

Bray, Jeffery, Nick Johns, and David Kilburn. “An Exploratory Study into the Factors Impeding Ethical Consumption.” Journal of Business Ethics 98.4 (2011): 597-608. Web. 5 May 2015.

Cooper-Martin, Elizabeth, and Morris B. Holbrook. “Ethical Consumption Experiences and Ethical Space.” Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993): 113-18. Association for Consumer Research. Web. 5 May 2015.

Johnston, Josée, and Michelle Szabo. “Reflexivity and the Whole Foods Market Consumer: The Lived Experience of Shopping for Change.” Agriculture and Human Values 28.3 (2011): 303-19. Springer Link. Web. 5 May 2015.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.


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