Being an ethical consumer is about avoiding products that cause harm, but it isn’t that simple. Many have been quick to criticize the idea, claiming that it doesn’t make a difference on a large scale. Others even argue that it does more harm than good. In this article, we’re going to dive into the criticisms of conscious consumerism. 

What Does it Mean to “Vote with your Wallet?”

When you buy products from a particular brand, you are investing in the future of that company. You are in essence casting a vote that says this company should continue to stay in business. By continuing to be their customer, you are agreeing with the company’s moral and ethical standards. Even if you don’t actually approve of their ethical stance, the money you spend on their product says otherwise. 

Once the full awareness of a company’s ethical practices outweighs the value you receive from buying their products, you stop consuming their products. You might choose to buy from a more ethical source, or decide you’d rather go without that product than support the companies that produce it. As the buying habits of consumers shift due to changing attitudes, companies are forced to adjust or face financial losses. This is what it means to vote with your wallet. 

Read: Vote With Your Wallet 

Does Ethical Consumerism Make a Difference? 

Buying ethically sourced products makes sense. If the produce grown with harmful pesticides rots on the shelf while the organic produce sells out, companies will get the message. But large corporations, many of which act unethically, still have the majority of the market share. They aim to profit from the conscious consumer just as much as the not-so-conscious consumer. Many companies that claim to be ethical are actually owned by large conglomerates, many of which act unethically. Some brands may also slap eco-friendly labels on their products to falsely market them as sustainable, a practice known as greenwashing.

Compared to the wider culture of conspicuous consumption, the wave of ethical shopping habits is said to be a drop in the bucket. While demand for ethical products is rising, they still make up a small slice of the overall market share. 

Criticisms of Ethical Consumerism 

Many have criticized the practice of ethical consumerism. From claims that it’s a form of virtue signaling to ethical products being too expensive, skeptics doubt that conscious consumption can affect real change. Below are some of the more common criticisms of conscious consumerism. 

Undermined by Greenwashing & Misleading Labels

Companies are catching on to the movement toward conscious consumption, and they want in. While ethical products can take a portion of the market share from popular brands, many companies see them as a new source of revenue. They don’t want to sacrifice their bottom line by implementing ethical practices. Instead, they use a tactic called greenwashing. This is when a brand falsely advertises itself as sustainable. It’s an attempt to deceive customers into buying their product on moral grounds, and the practice reduces the credibility of legitimately sustainable products. 

Misleading labels go far beyond sustainability. In the food industry, it’s common for brands to label their foods as GMO, organic, or fairtrade, even though they may meet only a few, if any, of those criteria. Eggs are often labeled as “free-range” or “cage-free” in an attempt to woo consumers wary of animal cruelty. Oftentimes, these labels are misleading. While the chickens may have been held in cages, they are still kept in conditions that animal rights advocates would disapprove of. Like greenwashing, these labels reduce the credibility of genuinely ethical products.

Virtue Signaling

Some have touted conscious consumerism as virtue signaling, a form of performative activism where the consumer appears to care about social causes, elevating their status among peers. Consumers can outwardly seem passionate about causes like environmentalism or animal cruelty, though they don’t engage in any real activism. While ethical consumerism can spark awareness of social causes, the act of buying ethical products can also make it so one doesn’t feel the need to engage in meaningful action. 

Privilege

Ethical consumerism can be said to be a luxury. Oftentimes, only those with disposable income can afford to be conscious consumers. People in lower-income communities can’t shell out the extra money to buy more expensive ethically sourced products. Many also simply don’t have the time or knowledge to educate themselves on why their favorite brands are harmful. 

Cost & Practicality

Ethical products are more expensive than their counterparts. Unethical practices make for cheap products. They’re cheap from a monetary perspective because companies don’t price in the externalities, or the unintended costs attributed to the product. Conventional agriculture causes deforestation, yet it results in cheap produce, and the cost of environmental destruction isn’t priced into the product. Sustainably grown vegetables are much more expensive, as the farmer takes on the cost of maintaining the ecosystem to grow crops. The high costs are then passed on to the consumer. If they don’t see the benefit in buying more expensive organic produce that is almost identical at face value, it makes more sense to buy the conventionally grown product. 

Being an ethical consumer isn’t always practical either. Many shoppers don’t want to go through the hassle of doing hours of research to find brands that meet their ethical standards. Most shoppers don’t want to spend valuable time reading through ingredients lists. Few want to do the hard work of finding a brand that isn’t owned by some large conglomerate. And going out of your way to find a store that carries the ethical products you want can be tough. Simply put, the ease of buying unethical products makes conscious consumerism difficult.

Ethical Consumerism is still Consumerism

Even though the conscious consumer is changing the way we shop, it doesn’t do much to change the overall system. These products cause less damage, not no damage. Fossil fuels are still burned, waste is still created, and people are still exploited. Ethical and non-ethical products sit on the same shelves. Buying products and creating demand, even if for sustainably-sourced merchandise, perpetuates the cycle of capitalism. The real issue lies in the overall culture of consumption, which calls for a constant supply of goods to satisfy our ever-growing demand. 

Key Takeaways 

While conscious consumers pride themselves in changing the way companies operate, the concept of ethical consumerism has garnered criticism. Proponents argue that the idea of voting with your wallet is more powerful than a vote at the ballot box, although critics believe their efforts are in vain. 

  • Large companies seek to gain from conscious consumerism
  • Greenwashing and misleading labels can undermine the efforts of genuinely ethical products
  • Ethical consumerism is often seen as an endeavor that only the privileged can afford
  • Searching for ethical products can be cumbersome

Ethical consumerism can change the system, but the effects are limited to the confines of consumerism itself. After all, the conscious consumer is still a consumer, and our limitless demand for goods puts immense stress on our limited supply of resources.


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