Environment Future Building

The Conundrum of “Ethical Consumption”

Bookmarked The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer | Atmos (

We must not mistake Ethical Consumption—a private act—for political power or organized, collective social change that benefits everyone.

The pandemic finally forced me to confront the failures of three decades of this market-driven approach to change. I have started to wonder not only if Ethical Consumerism is ineffective, but also, whether it’s actually getting people killed and driving our planet to ruin,  and why we continue to throw our power away on ethical shopping.

Even though it’s mostly progressives who identify as Ethical Consumers, as Teachout illuminates, making change through the way we shop is ultimately a right-wing idea. We’ve fully embraced the neoliberal system and worldview that change should happen through the marketplace.

But where we get ourselves into trouble is in viewing shopping as a moral act—and viewing shopping at a cheap chainstore that has poor business practices as an immoral one. Consumption is an economic imperative (there’s no escaping it under capitalism), and it is fundamentally determined by our income. Unless we believe that rich people, who can afford more ethical products, are somehow more ethical than the rest of us, we must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy.

— Elizabeth L. Cline

Lately have been thinking a lot about how we try to make ourselves feel better and get better outcomes for ourselves through our consumer choices — from “ethical consumption” to rich white parents sending their kids to private school instead of the public school.

We put our own feelings first instead of advocating for change for everyone, which is harder. And when we feel good about the consumer choices we’ve made, we feel less urgency to push for systemic change. My privilege is buying my complacency with the system.

As someone who’s devoted my whole career to the environment, and leads environmental messaging in my local government, this is a tricky thing to sell, especially in my well-off community.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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