Opinion | Stop wasting your time with the lie of ethical consumerism

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Columnist

It’s June and you need a new lawn mower, so you log into your Amazon account to check if they can ship you one by the weekend. Before you check out, you remember your friend telling you that Amazon is cruel to its workers.

You think about checking a local store, but you don’t know where the local hardware store is, or who owns it. While researching, you remember that an electric mower is greener than a reel mower, but you also remember that there were some clothes you wanted to buy on Amazon, but you also remember that those clothes are probably made in sweatshops.

You’re just trying to be an “ethical consumer,” but now you have a headache and feel like you need a philosopher to drag you out of this moral conundrum.

The trend of ethical consumerism is not a new one, with some linking the United States’ affinity for boycotts back to the Boston Tea Party. But modern ethical consumerism is a mess that has essentially no impact on the issues it targets, and in some cases can even be counterproductive.

In theory, the collective action that ethical consumerism hopes for could have a sizable impact. The additive effect of millions of people biking to work instead of driving, for example, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strongly incentivize car companies to be greener through lower sales of gasoline-powered cars.

But the countervailing winds are incredibly strong. For one thing, ethical consumerism needs to impact companies’ bottom line to change their behavior, and “voting with your wallet” almost never actually does so. One reason, curiously, is described in a paper published in 1996 by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Now a staunch free-market capitalist, Cruz outlines a clear free-market failure in the paper.

Cruz argues that companies have realized they can create inefficient agreements between themselves and their customers by hiding the terms of these contracts in complex documents that most consumers don’t read or understand. For example, when you need to sign an end-user license agreement to use a product you just bought, think about how often you actually read it — never.

Some informed customers may take their business elsewhere once they understand that companies are creating unfair contracts with uninformed customers — like Facebook and Google forcing you to agree to sell your data. But Cruz points out that these agreements exist because companies aren’t concerned about these marginal informed consumers.

Essentially, companies have run the numbers and concluded that not enough people vote with their wallets to make a difference.

As Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, told Vice, “We all complain about cell phone companies, but there are only four or five major competitors. So all those complaints are ignored.” In many situations dealing with large companies, there is simply nowhere else to take your business.

The alternative to buying from companies with unethical behavior is to pay a premium for a similar, ethical product or give up on their products entirely. In today’s fast-paced and well-connected world, it would be incredibly difficult to exist without a phone, and very inconvenient to give up things like Amazon’s vast selection of goods and fast shipping.

It’s very hard to believe that you could convince enough people to give up shopping at Amazon to affect their bottom line, but there’s also evidence to back up that thinking. Despite calls to boycottPrime Day” every year, Amazon continues to break the previous year’s sales record. Even if it is the moral thing to do, Amazon appears to be too difficult to give up for most people.

Furthermore, the idea of being an ethical consumer is regressive, meaning it disproportionately impacts poorer people. Since purchasing ethically requires paying a premium in cost or time, practitioners must already be well-off. Shaming those who don’t make ethical purchases, then, is to imply that some people can’t afford to be moral. It’s much easier for a well-off family to go out of their way to shop at Whole Foods.

Those wealthy enough to pay the higher cost of ethical consumerism probably aren’t making a dent in their other unethical behaviors, anyway. Being wealthy enough to go out of your way to buy free-range, organic eggs means also being wealthy enough to buy cars, plane tickets and other items that negatively impact the workers who make them or the environment.

At best, attempting to purchase ethically can offset small amounts of other unethical behavior, but at worst, it can lead to “moral licensing.” Moral licensing is a type of bias where doing something good allows someone or a group of people to subconsciously justify subsequent immoral acts. After making a moral egg purchase in the morning, someone might feel justified buying something much more wasteful in the afternoon.

As in the lawn mower example, buying something ethical isn’t even a clear choice most of the time. Do you buy a recycled good made by a company that doesn’t pay its workers a living wage, or a wastefully-made good produced by a company that does? How does the analysis change if you need the product to survive, or to live a pain-free existence? What if your purchasing choice is going to be socially painful?

In this tangled web of real-world purchasing decisions, it’s impossible to place moral blame squarely on the shoulders of the consumer. Nearly no one has the time or energy to extricate a moral solution to the problem every purchase creates, as parodied by the crippling indecision of the character Chidi in the moral TV comedy “The Good Place.”

Even when it’s possible to figure out what the best choice is, ethical consumerism almost never affects companies’ bottom lines, is a regressive idea and places blame on people who didn’t create the system they’re living under. In these circumstances, it’s impossible to claim that ethical consumerism is a moral obligation.

Of course, I’m not claiming that you should actively try to buy clothes made in sweatshops, drive your car instead of taking public transportation and book as many plane tickets as possible. You should attempt to make what appears to be the better choice whenever you can. You just shouldn’t waste any time thinking it’s going to make a difference to the wider systemic problems we face.

Instead, you should take any money and energy that you may be using trying to be an ethical consumer and use it in a way that could actually affect systemic change. Donate to politicians and organizations who understand the larger issues we face and may enact legislation or charitable work that makes a real difference. Just stop wasting your time with the lie of ethical consumerism.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, economics and music. Feel free to email your opinions on Weezer (or whatever else) to him at [email protected].