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Ethical Consumerism Is Unsustainable; What Can Take Its Place?

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Jan 7, 2020

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In the past decade, a particular kind of activism has taken root against corporations perceived to be either exploiting their workforce, degrading the environment, or engaging in other unethical business practices: consumer activism, or, what is popularly called voting with your wallet. An ethical consumer activist boycotts corporations they think don’t meet their own principles of social justice, thereby depriving the corporations of their business. The idea is that if enough consumers do it, the corporation would be booted out of the marketplace. But, it’s easier said than done.

Take Amazon for example — with reports of horrible workplace conditions for employees (workers having to skip bathroom breaks to pee in bottles to maximize productivity and avoid censure from management) and a disregard for its delivery systems’ environmental impact, boycotting Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce tech giant should be at the top of activists’ companies-to-boycott list. But every year, the media reports inklings of Amazon’s Prime Day boycotts, which in reality never take off nor succeed in making a dent in Amazon’s bottom line.

Take another example: Uber, which has its own #DeleteUber movement, sparked when the company was accused of undermining protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. In fact, Uber had eliminated surge prices at John F. Kennedy airport where protesters had gathered, which was seen as an attempt to incentivize people to go back home — using Uber’s services, of course. In addition, Uber’s CEO is well-known to make excuses for Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian practices, such as the state-sponsored murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, not to mention Uber’s history of lax handling of sexual harassment and assault cases. None of this, however, takes away from Uber’s pervasiveness and what its ride-sharing model has done for isolated communities and regions with poor public transportation.


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While trying to align one’s consumption habits with one’s principles is a worthy, albeit idealistic, cause, it’s not always effective nor the best way to make a point. For any boycott to be successful, a large number of consumers must change their habits for the protest to actually translate into a financial impact on the boycotted company’s bottom line. This is extremely difficult because it involves being inconvenienced as a consumer, which is a hard bargain to get people to rally behind a cause.

Most people don’t have the time to research ethical alternatives to the products and services they use daily, nor do they have the liberty or time to reject the accessible (and often unethical) options easily available to them. Stack on top of that the cost of ethical alternatives — especially environmentally-conscious ones — and ethical consumerism starts to seem like an insurmountable obstacle, a distant dream. While in an ideal world, we would never order socks from Amazon, or take an Uber from a drunken bar night, or buy Zara clothes, the convenience of ride-sharing services, fast fashion, and online retail is rooted in its affordability and accessibility. And so, consumers end up opting for the option that’s the easiest — and what’s easiest is probably also the most unethical. This convenience aspect of consumer’s purchasing habits is essential to understanding why ethical consumerism, as it stands today, is unsustainable.

Another issue with making ethical consumption choices is the lack of transparency that accompanies most corporations’ global operations. Take Beyoncé’s activewear clothing line, Ivy Park: clothing from a black feminist icon’s brand, which is inclusive of all bodies, would be an ethical purchase — except reports suggest the clothing may be made by sweatshop workers in Sri Lanka. But the multiple layers of bureaucracy and middlemen involved in a global operation such as Ivy Park make it difficult for a layperson who is Googling the company to reach a consensus about its ethics or lack thereof. A feminist corporation can be ignorant of workers’ rights; a brand selling ethically-made, environmentally-conscious clothing can leave out bigger body sizes; even if people do have the resources to put their money where their mouth is, it’s possible their chosen corporations are cutting corners on a few ethical issues on the side.

In the end, most boycotts based on the premise of ethical consumption don’t work. “The typical boycott doesn’t have much impact on sales revenue,” writes professor of management and organizations at Northwestern Univerity, Brayden King. Especially with fast social media and news cycles, corporations usually wait out any uproar against their unethical operations, King writes, adding, “One has to wonder if the effect of activism targeting companies is becoming diluted, in the sense that we can’t pay attention to any single controversy for very long.” Commenting on the impact of ethical consumerism, global lead of Weber Shandwick’s social impact group, Paul Massey, also told Fast Company boycotts don’t affect corporations’ revenue, citing retail giant L.L. Bean as an example: the brand was targeted in the #GrabYourWallet movement against President Donald Trump and his business ventures — but it did not see any fall in sales.

But boycotts can have other, unforeseen effects. In a 2,000-participant survey conducted by public relations firm Weber Shandwick, 19% of the ethical consumers participating said boycotts hurt the employees of the boycotted company more than the company itself.


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However, when a boycott is accompanied by widespread media coverage, it can work. “The longer the media covers a boycott, the greater the impact on a company’s stock price,” Brayden King writes. Targeted firms saw a decline in their stock price of half a percent after the initial announcement of a boycott, and an average decline of 0.7 % per day if the boycott endured, but only if it received national media attention, King found. The idea behind successful boycotts is not to deprive the corporations of their customers but to make enough noise about the corporation’s lack of ethics that its reputation is damaged.

“The No. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” King said in a statement. “If you are a high-reputation company, you are better off conceding early rather than letting the game play out and letting the media attention overwhelm you,” he added. While unethical corporations, undoubtedly, need to be forced to change or stripped of their power to dominate markets, the way to do it effectively and sustainably is not to boycott but to apply public pressure for corporate reform, through online petitions and social media, Urska Trunk, advisor to Changing Markets Foundation (CMF), told Vogue. She cites the practice’s effectiveness in a campaign CMF conducted to make eight major European Union-based corporations, including H&M and the parent company of Zara, sign on to its plan to reform the production of viscose, that is, manmade yarn. Long-term, however, Trunk told Vogue, the activism needs to be focused on policy change. Consumers should dedicate time to understand their government representatives’ stance on corporate regulations and social justice issues they care about.

In the meantime, another kind of purchasing trend is on the rise: buycotts. In buycotts, consumers can contribute to a cause they believe in and effect change by using, rather than withholding, their wallets. The Weber Shandwick report found when consumers support a company whose mission statement they believe in, they can directly contribute toward a company’s bottom line. Researchers found clothing company Patagonia increased its web sales six-fold after it blacked out its website with the message “The President Stole Your Land” and slapped a lawsuit on U.S. President Trump for reducing the size of monuments in Utah.

A more productive use of resources isn’t thinking where not to shop from, but to figure out what to put money into — when and however a consumer can. It’s a more sustainable and effective way to vote with one’s wallet that doesn’t rely on being inconvenienced to make a difference. 

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Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news in New York City. Back in the homeland, she spends her free time trying to dismantle societal beauty standards, laughing uproariously at comedy shows, and fervently following her football team, Arsenal.

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