Having just moved to a new country, I’ve tried to do a little research in my spare time into some green labels to look out for, in an attempt to consume a little more responsibly. For my MA thesis, I wrote a little about the limitations of relying too heavily on ethical labels and similar market-based approaches to achieving sustainability outcomes. Having to acquaint myself now with the labelling schemes in Australia is turning out to be fairly frustrating and tedious, and many of the issues that I wrote about are hitting me “in real life,” as it were. I think it’s important to confront the very real limitations that ethical/sustainable (whatever you want to call it) consumption has in achieving a widespread, adequate shift to a sustainable society. In doing so I don’t want to condemn any and all ethical consumption – it can be pretty empowering in the mean time on an individual level. However, I also think it’s important we don’t get too invested in one approach that has some serious problems, both practically and ironically, ethically as well. Here’s an edited extract from my MA (hence the citations) which you are more than welcome to politely critique.
Green labels have been a major market-driven response to the critique of neoliberal environmental governance, attempting to fill in consumers’ lack of information about the environmental costs of products and services while minimising state interference in markets and oversight of polluting practices. The price premiums associated with certain green goods are meant to either internalise the price of the pollution created by a certain good, fund the research that goes into informing and assigning the label, or go towards some sort of off-setting (such as carbon off-setting, for example). These are meant to address some of the pitfalls of the market in environmental governance, in particular, externalities and incomplete information (Blumm, 1992). It has also been encouraged by “civic” websites attempting to engage youth politically, instead of more conventional political action (Banaji & Buckingham, 2009, p. 1199). Ethical consumption has thus been used as both a remedy for, and recognition of, problems with ignoring environmental externalities.
Ethical consumerism, while perfectly commendable on an individual level, has been argued to present an inadequate response to a much larger problem, both theoretically and in practice. First, giving individual consumers the main decision-making responsibilities of what is fundamentally a collective problem is troubling, since there are many barriers to consuming sustainably (Mont & Plepys, 2007, p. 535). Consumers can be apathetic towards the environment in general or compared to other product attributes (such as aesthetic and social values), have limited knowledge which causes them to be skeptical of green marketing (a problem which cannot be addressed through a label), or simply feel that their individual choice is too insignificant (Schaefer & Crane, 2005, p. 82). Through no fault of their own, consumers are also limited by availability and reliability of both information and “ethical” products (Banaji & Buckingham, 2009, p. 1200). While most people in the US for example know their lifestyles may need to change to protect the environment, they are unclear about what to do to create positive changes due to the sheer complexity and number of actions one can take (Brower & Leon, 1999). This is somewhat understandable given that opposing groups (eg. an industry lobby group vs an environmental NGO) can often find “independent experts” that appear to disagree, reducing public trust in any expert advice (Corner & Richardson, 1993, p. 225). Given the increasing politicisation of science, and the abundance of differing “expert” views, it is often impossible for ordinary citizens to trust or heed the advice of environmental scientists (p. 11). It has thus been shown through various studies that public understanding of environmental issues such as global warming are often highly confused (Stamm, Clark, & Eblacas, 2000, p. 220). The existing “green-wash and proliferation of certification schemes have already confused consumers, limiting their willingness to pay the price premiums typically associated with sustainably produced goods (S. Harris, 2007, p. 51). These feelings of uncertainty have been echoed in research on consumers’ reasons for not purchasing ethically, across both developed and developing nations (Devinney, Belk, & Eckhardt, 2010). In an increasingly globalised world, consumers are rarely directly affected or confronted with the consequences of their purchases in a visible way, further exacerbating ignorance and apathy (Hajer, 1997, p. 10). There is also the glaring issue of affordability, in two respects. Since individual households often have more immediate, short-term concerns for basic needs, they often cannot afford to choose to “buy green,” as they have limited time and means (F. Harris, 2004, p. 270). This limits the effectiveness of sustainable consumption on a large enough scale to produce adequate, long-term environmental protection. Indeed, multiple studies have found that “ethical consumption tends to be concentrated among social groups that are already economically privileged” (Banaji & Buckingham, 2009, p. 1200), thus effectively excluding a large segment of the population and reproducing the very disempowerment that ethical consumption aims to relieve (1201). Since consumption patterns are also affected by habit, it is perhaps overzealous to rely on consumers alone to move towards more sustainable consumption (Schaefer & Crane, 2005, p. 87). While ethical consumerism may positively complement political actions, it would be simplistic and inadequate for such consumer action to replace political action altogether (Banaji & Buckingham, 2009, p. 1202). Even if consumers were hypothetically adequately resourced, there are also production-side inadequacies of relying mainly on ethical consumerism to achieve sustainability.
It is questionable how effective ethical consumerism currently is on the production side, in terms of practice and efficiency. The price premiums of green products do not always directly ameliorate environmental harm, since they usually go to producers despite the public effects of unsustainable production (Guthman, 2007, p. 460). There are also barriers for producers wishing to participate in certification schemes: in practice, “the intent of the standards lead to different foci for verification purposes and, hence, barriers to entry” (p. 462). The growing number of certification schemes (both for- and non- profit) also serve to create multiple rules and rule-making bodies, going against the market ideal of efficiency (p. 467), and increasing costs for producers. This is particularly the case for “organic” goods, for example, where there are multiple certification schemes even within countries. Lastly, there is the constant uncertainty of current science around sustainability, for two reasons. First, environmental problems rarely exist in isolation, and therefore it is difficult to adequately consider interacting or interconnected issues. Second, there is the age old problem of uncertainty about the future. Despite such issues, ethical consumerism has been widely embraced by both industry and environmentalists, and of course, it does have its appeal – as Blumm (1992) notes: “No one likes to be the subject of some government regulation that a faceless bureaucrat enforces.” However, excessive reliance on the market to price and label often obfuscates the potential for non-market methods, reinforcing the misnomer that there is no alternative mechanism to achieve environmental or social stewardship (Guthman, 2007, p. 473). Some have been more explicit in their criticism, stating that “ethical consumption is merely an individualistic strategy that is complicit with neoliberalism…it can reinforce political quietism and apathy” (Banaji & Buckingham, 2009, p. 1201). Such schemes can be reductive in that they distract from the “deeper political and social aspects” of sustainability (Eagan, 2008, p. 41).
So where to from here? Personally I believe that ethical consumption is still a good way to get people aware that their consumption is always going to have ripple effects, and engaging them politically as citizens, not just consumers. Therefore I consider it a means, not an end. What might the end goal constitute? Well, regulation may be a dirty word for some, but if it democratically expresses the collective concerns of the citizens that initiate it, it would be a lot easier to buy ethically when the ethical option is cheaper, or the main option, not an alternative. More broadly, maybe it’s time to make political engagement the end goal of ethical consumption. Which segues quite nicely into a little plug I have for an upcoming forum exploring youth disengagement in politics.