Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Ian Zimmerman Ph.D.

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Why Don't We Consume Ethically?

What factors lead us to avoid cruelty-free, fair-trade, and green products?

Posted Oct 04, 2014

Ethical consumption entails a number of buying habits, including animal-friendly consumption, fair trade consumption, and green consumption.  Despite the fact that there are numerous opportunities to consume ethically, many of us still don’t do it.  Why is this?  Answering this question is worthwhile, because understanding why something doesn’t happen is a good way of learning how it does happen.  In this post I’m going to review some of the reasons we don’t consume ethically, addressing such topics as our values, the sometimes difficult nature of making an informed ethical decision, and a common rationalization for unethical consumption.  After reading this you’ll hopefully better understand why ethical individuals sometimes consume unethically, and if you happen to be someone who wants to consume more ethically reading this will hopefully help you modify your consumption behavior.

Values have been shown to relate to ethical consumption.  One value that’s particularly related to less ethical consumption is power.  Why do those who value power consume less ethically?  Well, those who value power are more concerned with being in a position of dominance over others, and as such are probably less concerned with helping exploited animals or disadvantaged producers.  Those who value power are also less likely to consume ethically because valuing power also often means valuing wealth, and as ethical consumption is often more expensive those who value power tend to avoid it.

Complex and confusing choices can deter us from at least one form of ethical consumption: Buying green.  As an example of the difficulty consumers can face, consider this question: Is organic food or local food more sustainable?  Organic food is produced with fewer pesticides, however if it was produced far enough away transporting it could leave a large carbon footprint.  Local food by contrast may not have traveled as far to reach the consumer, but it may have been produced with chemicals that harm the environment.  When faced with a situation in which one can’t avoid buying something that was either produced far away or with pesticides, if one can’t determine which of those options is the lesser of two evils one may simply decide there’s no point and buy food that’s neither organic nor locally produced.

We may refrain from consuming ethically by convincing ourselves that one person’s actions don’t matter.  It’s easy to say, “One person buying beef won’t destroy the planet”, and to be sure that is true, which makes this rationalization all the more comforting.  However, if enough of us say this to ourselves enough times, the planet actually could suffer.  This is an example of a social dilemma, which is a situation in which a course of action beneficial to an individual will, if taken by enough individuals, harm the entire group.  Social dilemmas are tricky, because it is very easy for each individual to convince herself that one person’s self-serving behavior isn’t that harmful.

As stated at the beginning of this blog, understanding why something doesn’t work can be a good way to learn how it does work.  Knowing that valuing power could lead us to consume less ethically implies that valuing helping others (instead of dominating them) could lead us to consume more ethically.  Knowing that confusion at the store can deter ethical consumption, we can educate ourselves beforehand on where to buy food that’s both local and organic.  Finally, knowing that society is composed of many individuals who learn behaviors by observing others teaches us that when one person buys a product that’s animal-friendly or fair-trade or organic, others may imitate that behavior.  While it may be trite, this idea reminds me of what Margaret Mead said about the power of individuals: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.