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My Ethical Consumption Dilemma

By Joel Sabando, Crimson Opinion Writer
Joel Sabando ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Comparative Literature and Math concentrator in Lowell House.

While doomscrolling through Instagram, I often come across a kind of post that really bothers me. Sometimes found on the accounts of people I otherwise admire and whose work I deeply appreciate is the quote “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” followed by the activist’s personal rendition of an argument that goes something like: “Screw ‘ethical consumption.’ It’s an elitist and self-righteous practice that intentionally excludes the working class.” Typically, they then conclude by saying that we’d be much better off focusing our energy elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong: It isn’t lost on me why someone would believe this. Corporations often try to shift the blame for climate change and their other capitalist excesses on individuals, asking that we do our part to mitigate these issues when the blame, by and large, lies at their feet. The argument for conscious consumption also calls for a sense of individual responsibility, an idea haunted (on the left, anyway) by the specter of neoliberalism.

The developed arguments behind the posts probably aren’t too bad, either: Those opposed to the practice often say that “ethical consumers” are mistaken in thinking they make a difference. For example, realistically speaking, individual veganism does nothing to reduce the effects of factory farming on climate change. So these critics argue that the money and energy used on conscious consumption would hence be better spent on donating to environmental organizations and lobbying for comprehensive policy change. There’s no gotcha here. The numbers all add up.

Still, I find myself reluctant to say that conscious consumption doesn’t matter.

We can separate the motivations behind conscious consumption into two camps: a desire to promote sustainability and a desire to align consumption with morality. I think the argument outlined above places far too much weight on the first motivation while discarding the second as sanctimony. But I feel that conscious consumption is far more about doing the right thing than it is about effecting change. Much as the majority of vegans are vegan because they believe in animal rights, I choose to boycott Amazon, among other corporate juntas, because I refuse to support its repugnant labor practices. I suffer no false pretenses that my decision to abstain from Amazon is substantially impacting its revenue, which increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic. In other words, both the vegans and I know that our decisions aren’t changing anything: we choose conscious consumption because we believe that to choose otherwise would be wrong.

Moreover, I think the idea that conscious consumption is a luxury that low-income people cannot afford feels strawman-ish at best and very misguided at worst. The argument for conscious consumption is not that someone should place themselves in debt or make otherwise poor financial decisions to comply with its tenets; calls for conscious consumption — at least the ones from people with a brain and heart — are clearly directed towards people who have the ability to choose how they consume in the first place.

It also seems to me that posts like these misunderstand good faith calls for conscious consumption. Laden in them is the idea that conscious consumption is about asserting your moral superiority and feeling good about yourself, maybe even absolving some of your capitalist guilt along the way. By this view, the quintessential conscious consumer is the corner-office girlboss who swipes her platinum Amex for some sustainably sourced Bonsai fertilizer with one hand and types up her latest Boston Consulting Group memo with the other.

What this caricature misses is that conscious consumption is a moral framework about making the most conscious and informed decision that you feasibly can and is informed by the same moral commitments that presumably guide every other facet of your life. So while the desire to consume consciously might lead someone to make certain his flowers are farm-to-coffee table, it would also demand that he abstain, whenever possible, from purchasing water from companies that colonize Indigenous springs.

Really, here lies the problem: in their supposed concern for the lower class, these posts legitimize their abuse. Its sweeping claim that conscious consumption is a worthless endeavor flies in the face of the truth that any other kind of consumption relies on and reinforces the mistreatment of oppressed people. So, while it is true that we need large-scale societal change, the anti-“ethical consumption" crowd completely dismisses commitment to one’s ethical values — and chief among mine is a dedication to the marginalized.

I’ve seen some people on Twitter suggest that we should replace “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” as much as it continues to ring true, with Theodor Adorno’s “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” Wrong as Adorno was about many things, this strikes me as the right position today. The point here isn’t that worries about the impact of consumption are irrelevant, as many a Shein hauler on TikTok would have us believe, but that consumption as it currently exists is definitionally bound up with exploitation.

Sometimes we don’t have any good choices, but that doesn’t take away from our responsibility to live the least wrong life we can. Even in our twisted consumptive landscape, we can choose to pay people more for their time and to make the effort to engage in as little exploitation as we can. And maybe these concerns are self-righteous; maybe it doesn’t matter whether we take advantage of people’s suffering if they’ll suffer anyway. Then again, I’d rather be self-righteous than willingly do wrong.

Joel Sabando ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Comparative Literature and Math concentrator in Lowell House.

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