The Limits of Ethical Consumerism

Can we save the world, one bamboo spork at a time?

By Marc Triller | July/August 2021

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

issue 355 cover

This article is from the
July/August 2021 issue.

Subscribe Now

at a 30% discount.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, my partner and I visited a pop-up exhibition in New York City called “Arcadia Earth.” Billed as a climate change “museum,” it features a series of immersive art installations that are designed to teach visitors “how small lifestyle changes will have a massive impact on the future of our planet.” The exhibit leads guests through a maze of 15 rooms portraying the effects of various ecological crises. One room is a rainbow-hued cave constructed with 44,000 discarded plastic bags, representing the number of bags used in New York State every minute. In another space, discarded textile fabrics depict the hanging entrails of animals slaughtered in factory farms. Other installations illustrate the ravages of deforestation, overfishing, and global warming. Throughout the exhibit, display panels entreat visitors to take actions such as eating less meat, giving up single-use plastics, and purchasing more environmentally sustainable products. The overarching theme is that individuals can help save the Earth from ecological crisis by making better consumption decisions.

While the experience was certainly evocative, what I found most striking was the final stage of the exhibition: a home goods shop featuring a curated selection of “healthier” products “that benefit the planet, small businesses, and you,” according to the exhibit’s website. As I contemplated the shelves of bamboo sporks, nontoxic face lotions, and stainless-steel lunchboxes, it occurred to me that the entire immersive art experience had been ingeniously designed to emotionally prime me to purchase these goods at the end of the maze.

In fact, I later learned that Valentino Vettori, the creator of the art exhibit, is a professional designer for retail fashion storefronts. On his personal website, Vettori describes his conception of experiential retail:

[Retail stores] are no longer asked merely to sell a product, we are called upon to tell a story. Brands that want to keep moving forward need to be bold and replace the archaic “dollar-per-square ft” formula with the dynamic “impression per square ft” approach. ... Our designs are made to invite consumers to step off the street and into a whole new world that engages, stimulates and inspires them with an unforgettable experience.

“Arcadia Earth” is the perfect manifestation of this experiential retail vision. Rather than merely hawking string tote bags and biodegradable toothbrushes, “Arcadia Earth” guides consumers through an awe-inspiring yet unsettling encounter with a planet in peril. Throughout the art exhibition, visitors are reminded at least a dozen times of how their individual consumption habits are endangering the environment. Yet, the end of the journey provides an opportunity for redemption. By purchasing a collapsible mug or a refillable bottle of shampoo, the consumer can experience relief from their guilt and possess a physical symbol of their commitment to saving the Earth.

Could it be that “Arcadia Earth” is a good-faith venture to inspire people to action? After all, “Arcadia Earth” must have to compensate the artists, pay its staff, and shell out some ridiculous amount of rent for its retail space in the fashionable NoHo neighborhood. What’s the harm in having a gift shop to keep things afloat? More importantly, aren’t they correct to point out that we are killing the planet with all the meat we eat, the crappy consumer goods we buy, and the mountains of waste we generate? It seems sensible that if we all made small changes in our consumption habits, it could have a major positive impact.

This line of thinking comprises the basic premise of the ethical consumerism movement. Ethical consumption (otherwise known as “conscious consumption”) is the practice of purchasing goods and services that are produced in a manner that minimize social and environmental damage. By “voting” with their dollars and choosing products that align with their values, the thinking goes, ethical consumers can protect the environment and influence businesses to be more sustainable, ethical, and accountable. In this framework, individual purchases can be viewed as acts of political activism. “By buying products that don’t contain palm oil, you’re casting a vote to save orangutans and the Indonesian rainforest in which they live,” the website for Ethical Consumer magazine tells us. The bottom line with this conscious consumption philosophy is that every individual can help save the world from ecological crisis by rejecting unsustainable products and choosing instead to buy green, organic, eco-friendly, socially responsible, zero-waste, ethically-sourced consumer goods. However, there are some questions that linger: Is this kind of consumerism actually feasible for most people? And does this approach actually help us save our rapidly warming planet?

The idea of ethical consumption has featured prominently in media outlets like the New York Times, which questions its readers, “Are you an ethical consumer?” and publishes articles such as “How to Be a More Conscious Consumer, Even If You’re on a Budget.” The Times also offers a carbon footprint quiz for readers to evaluate whether they are making “good climate choices.” Not-for-profit organizations like the Ethical Consumer Research Association take the additional step of publishing ethical shopping guides, rating over 40,000 brands and products so consumers can purchase the most ethical goods. Ethical consumption has even been embraced by corporate associations stressing the importance of individual actions such as recycling, minimizing plastic waste, and reducing the size of one’s carbon footprint.

Despite ethical consumption’s widespread acceptance in liberal, well-to-do circles, a close examination reveals that ethical consumption cannot be relied upon as a stand-alone solution. While individual efforts to reduce societal and environmental harm are commendable, the ethical consumption framework has at least three major shortcomings that make it inadequate for addressing the ecological crises we currently face. These issues include the difficulty of determining the “most ethical” product, the exaggeration of consumer power relative to corporate power, and the distortion of responsibility for solving social and environmental issues.

The Calculation Problem

In many cases, it’s incredibly difficult—if not downright impossible—to determine what the “most ethical” product is, or even which product is marginally “more ethical.” For instance, if I want to buy a laptop computer, and I have five models from five different companies to choose from, how do I determine which model is the most ethical? For simplicity, let’s say the only factor that’s important to me is the total emissions generated by the product. If I want to be thorough, I need to account for all emissions expended in the manufacturing process, including: research and development; sales and marketing; sourcing raw materials; manufacturing, assembling, transporting, and warehousing the computer components; warehousing and distributing the finished product; shipping for returns, maintenance, and replacement parts; and finally, the lifetime power usage of the device.

To properly calculate this, one would have to map the entire global supply chain for each of the five laptops, which is no easy feat. As the coronavirus pandemic illustrated, many international corporations have supply chains that are so complex that the companies avoided mapping them due to the time and costs involved. Unless each company had already mapped its supply chain and was willing to make the data publicly available (both highly unlikely), a private individual mapping the supply chain for a single laptop computer would probably need years to complete the research. Moreover, even if one were able to map the entire supply chain, the information obtained would soon be irrelevant as the technology, processes, and suppliers would undoubtedly change. And unless one has the most up-to-date information about each laptop’s supply chain, it will be nearly impossible to determine which product is the most “ethical” on an ongoing basis. This holds true for emissions, plastic waste, labor conditions, and any other criteria by which one might measure a product’s “ethicalness.” In short, it is nearly impossible for an individual to obtain this information about a single product, much less every one of the thousands of consumer goods that the average person buys over a lifetime.

Clearly very few people have this kind of time on their hands, so what if instead of trying to always purchase the most ethical product, people just made consumption decisions that were marginally more ethical? For instance, instead of driving six days per week, one could take public transportation or bike once per week, resulting in a weekly emissions reduction of about 17%. In theory, if everyone adopted this behavior, carbon emissions would drop.

The problem with this approach is that there is a risk that the individual changes in consumption would be so small that the overall environmental impact would be negligible. For instance, during the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans eliminated commuting and other kinds of travel altogether, and estimated daily vehicle miles plummeted by nearly 16%. However, greenhouse gas emissions only fell by about 10%. Although this decline in emissions exceeded the United Nation’s 7.6% annual reduction target, if a global pandemic that brings much of the country to a standstill for months only reduces emissions by 10%, it’s unreasonable to expect small, voluntary changes to make an impact of this magnitude year-over-year. Furthermore, as the United States recovers from the pandemic, the emissions reductions gained during the pandemic will likely be reversed unless immediate action is taken to invest in green energy infrastructure.

An additional complicating factor in the ethical consumption calculus is the difficulty comparing ethical attributes. How does one evaluate trade-offs among different products’ ethical or unethical characteristics? For example, consider farmers’ markets. In theory, buying blueberries at your local farmers’ market is good because it supports community businesses, the farmers don’t use genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and perhaps the berries are organic. Yet, from the standpoint of carbon emissions, farmers’ markets are extremely inefficient because each farmer has to transport their own produce to the market, often multiple times per week. If you also have to drive 10 minutes to the farmers’ market, but the supermarket is only a two-minute walk from your home, one could argue that it’s actually more eco-friendly (if we’re looking strictly at a consumer’s car emissions) to shop for blueberries at the supermarket. But how does one weigh this against the pollution caused by the supermarket’s unsustainable packaging and plastic grocery bags? To further complicate matters, what if the blueberries for sale at the farmers’ market are picked by migrant workers being paid subminimum wages? In this case, there’s no clear determinant for which blueberries are more or less ethical.

Even if one were able to objectively compare a product’s ethical attributes, many people lack the ability to purchase the “more ethical” products simply because they can’t afford them. Due to financial constraints, poor folks justifiably prioritize factors such as cost and functionality over other considerations because their daily survival depends on it. This raises the question, if someone chooses a less sustainable product over a more sustainable product, does this make them unethical? Furthermore, if someone doesn’t “vote with their dollar” by buying more “sustainable” products, does that mean they’re voting against sustainability? If every act of consumption carries moral weight, then one’s ability to be good is ultimately constrained by one’s wealth. Unless one accepts the premise that the poor can never be good, it’s difficult to see how the ethical consumption framework can be universally applied.

Consumer Versus Corporate Power

Another key issue with the ethical consumption framework is that it is constructed on the shaky foundation of “consumer sovereignty.” According to this conception of consumers and producers, every firm is like a dinghy adrift at sea, tossed about by the waves and rapidly shifting currents of consumer preference. Like Poseidon, the mythical consumer is a fickle deity with the power to either summon a tempest to wreck the boat, or clear the weather and allow it to pass safely. All the power rests in the hands the consumer, and if the firm fails to satisfy the consumer’s every whim, the business is sunk.

Although consumer purchasing decisions certainly affect corporations, it’s important to understand that a consumer’s choice set (i.e., the number of consumption alternatives available to them) is heavily influenced by corporate interests. In other words, as a consumer, you may be able to order your meal à la carte, but big business picks what goes on the menu. This power to shape consumers’ preferences and constrain their available consumption options is evident in two key areas: advertising and policymaking.

Marketing research has shown that advertising has a significant impact on consumer buying behavior. For instance, a recent study published in the Business Studies Journal empirically demonstrated that factors such as an ad’s familiarity, entertainment value, and social appeal, combined with the total expenditure on the campaign, all positively influence consumers to purchase the advertised product. Although a host of individual and social factors also influence consumer purchasing decisions, advertising is the most direct way for companies to vie for consumers’ attention. As a result, U.S. corporations collectively spent $240 billion on advertising in 2019, with the 20 biggest U.S. advertisers spending upwards of $2 billion apiece. That same year, Amazon topped the list by spending an astonishing $6.9 billion on advertising—the equivalent of $21,000 per minute.

Corporate efforts to influence consumer behavior often begin before most people are aware it’s happening. Many companies employ cradle-to-grave marketing strategies to shape children’s tastes before they’re old enough to purchase goods or understand marketing’s persuasive intent. Even for adults, well-designed ads can create subconscious, emotional associations that frame consumer goods as the keys to realizing our instinctual needs for things like food and social connection. For instance, a 2013 study featured in the Journal of Marketing demonstrated that merely seeing images of someone eating pizza enhanced people’s experiences during their own subsequent indulgence in a slice of pizza. The researchers also found that pizza ads provided a sense of social acceptability that justified the viewers’ indulgence in unhealthy food.

Regardless of whether consumers are conscious of these effects, corporations deluge us with advertisements to influence our emotions, desires, and consumption behaviors. Considering that the average person is exposed to somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 ads per day, it would be a mistake to believe that our tastes and preferences are free from corporate influence.

While advertising has the power to impact a consumer’s preferences and consumption behavior, corporations can also shape a consumer’s choice set by influencing policymaking. This can be accomplished by contributing to dark money groups (which can donate unlimited sums to political nonprofits and super PACs without disclosing their donors), sponsoring think tanks that support pro-corporate policies, as well as funding “grassroots” activist groups that pressure elected officials.

One of the most effective ways to shape policy is through lobbying, on which American corporations spent $2.99 billion in 2020. Lobbyists—many of whom are former government officials—have extensive ties to legislators and members of regulatory agencies. Thus, by hiring the right lobbying firm, corporations can gain an unprecedented level of access to government decision makers and a seat at the table to defend their interests.

Since 1998, U.S. oil and gas companies have spent over $2.4 billion on lobbying, and their investment has paid off handsomely. Despite the fact that fossil fuels are one of the biggest drivers of climate change, a recent report from Public Citizen revealed that over 65% of top U.S. Department of the Interior meetings with the private sector between 2017 and 2019 took place with oil, gas, and coal groups. In contrast, sessions with conservation and renewable energy interests comprised only 12% of the department’s meetings.

The extent of the oil and gas industry’s political influence is also evidenced by U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry’s recent remarks that half of the emissions cuts necessary to reach net-zero carbon emissions will be made by technologies that have not yet been invented. Kerry’s statement reveals that the fossil fuel lobby has successfully convinced him that the solution to climate change is not achieved by cutting emissions and immediately transitioning to green energy. Rather, the optimal course of action is to basically cross our fingers and hope that new technologies will be invented so that oil and gas companies can continue business as usual.

This example illustrates that when it comes to public investment, the consumer’s policy preferences and consumption choices are irrelevant. Consumers can’t choose to address climate change immediately with current technology, because that option has been blocked by fossil fuel interests. In other cases, ethical consumers might want their local utilities to be powered by wind and solar energy, or they might prefer taking a train to work rather than driving. However, unless these public services already exist, there’s no way to “vote” for them by paying an electric bill or buying a train ticket. One might argue that a consumer could “vote with their dollar” by donating to political candidates who support building green infrastructure. Yet, as is the case with lobbying, in a system in which our dollar is our vote, the people with the deepest pockets will always get the most votes.

Blame Consumers, Absolve Corporations

A third major problem with the ethical consumption framework is that it blames consumers and burdens them with fixing problems that have been caused by corporations. For instance, in the “Arcadia Earth” exhibit, their signage on plastic pollution merely states, “Plastic waste is entering our food chain.” (As if microplastics have some sort of collective consciousness and are plotting to destroy the planet!) The implicit message is that individual consumers cause climate change and plastic pollution by making unethical consumption choices. Therefore, consumers bear the ultimate responsibility for solving the crisis.

This framing distorts the truth that a handful of corporations disproportionately drive the plastic crisis. Just 20 firms produce 55% of the world’s plastic waste, and the recent fossil fuel boom has made production of “virgin” plastic much cheaper than using recycled plastic. With the plastics market worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually, these corporations have a significant economic incentive to ramp up their production. In order to justify the expansion of the plastics industry, the industry has launched a massive campaign to suppress efforts to reduce plastic waste while emphasizing the significance of recycling. For instance, plastics industry lobbyists actively oppose efforts to restrict the production of new plastics by pushing for state laws that prohibit local bans on plastics. In addition, groups such as the American Beverage Association lobby against container deposit laws that have been shown to save energy, prevent pollution, and reduce the amount of plastic waste sent to landfills and incinerators.

While the plastics industry privately resists all attempts at regulation, it publicly feigns concern for the environment by stressing the importance of recycling. The United States only recycles about 9% of its plastic waste, and while some of the failure can be blamed on careless consumers, much of the plastic waste that arrives at recycling centers is either incinerated, sent to a landfill, or exported to countries that lack sufficient infrastructure to manage it. The root of the problem stems from the fact that the very notion of plastic recycling is largely a sustainability scam. A 2020 study by Greenpeace uncovered that regardless of what the label says, only two types of plastic bottles and jugs (PET No. 1 and HDPE No. 2) are legitimately recyclable in the United States. This means that over 60% of plastics manufactured globally are not even recyclable! In spite of the fact that recycling alone is insufficient to absorb the ever-increasing levels of single-use plastics being produced, the industry continues to peddle the narrative that consumers are to blame.

The concept of ethical consumption dovetails nicely with this corporate propaganda. Instead of illuminating how ecological crises are caused by corporations’ willful shifting of costs onto consumers and the environment, the ethical consumption framework absolves corporations and holds consumers responsible for both causing and solving the problem.

Toward Collective Action

While the espoused goals of ethical consumption are laudable, ethical consumption alone is insufficient for solving the planetary crises we currently face. Our discussion of ethical consumption’s implications reveals that it is nearly impossible to figure out which products are optimally ethical, and even if one could, this framework can’t be universally applied because it requires a certain level of time and income. Furthermore, this approach presumes that isolated acts of consumption have the power to influence corporate behavior. While this may be true to a limited extent, ethical consumption downplays corporations’ power to shape consumers’ tastes and constrain their choice sets. Finally, ethical consumption shifts blame for social and ecological issues from corporations to consumers.

To be clear, my intent is not to criticize people’s attempts to minimize the social and ecological harms caused by consumption. Individual efforts at minimizing social and environmental damage are important, but isolated acts of personal consumption won’t make much of an impact. In fact, ethical consumption’s singular focus on buying products forecloses alternatives to an economic system that depends on endless consumption and growth. In the future, instead of agonizing over the “best” item to put in our shopping carts, perhaps we could tap into the anxiety we feel about our economic system and use it to motivate us to take action. For meaningful change to take place, we don’t need ethical consumers as much as we need consumer activists. Community organizing, boycotts, rallies, and other forms of political activism are the only proven ways we have to successfully pressure corporations and governments to make the changes necessary to save the Earth from climate catastrophe. And, in the event you forget your stainless-steel water bottle in your rush to get to the local climate change protest, I know of a home goods shop in NoHo that has some great deals.

is a graduate student in economics at The New School and a member of the Dollars & Sense Writers’ Workshop.

Valentino Vettori, “Our Motivation,” company website (; Tim Hunt, “Why Shop Ethically?” Ethical Consumer website, April 6, 2021 (; Jeremy Engel, “Are You an Ethical Consumer?” New York Times, December 14, 2018 (; Kristin Wong, “How to Be a More Conscious Consumer, Even If You’re on a Budget,” New York Times, October 1, 2019; Veronica Penney, “Think You’re Making Good Climate Choices? Take This Mini-Quiz,” New York Times, August 30, 2020; Jill Mislinski, “America’s Driving Habits as of March 2021,” Advisor Perspectives, May 24, 2021 (; Kate Larsen, Hannah Pitt, and Alfredo Rivera, Preliminary US Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimates for 2020, Rhodium Group, January 12, 2021 (; Tashrifa Haider and Shadman Shakib, “A Study On The Influences of Advertisement On Consumer Buying Behavior,” Business Studies Journal, 2017 (; Statista, “Media advertising spending in the United States from 2015 to 2022” (; “Leading National Advertisers 2020 Fact Pack,” Ad Age, July 13, 2020 (; Katie Jones, “How Total Spending by U.S. Advertisers Has Changed, Over 20 Years,” Visual Capitalist, Oct. 16, 2020 (; Morgan Poor, Adam Duhachek, H. Shanker Krishnan, “How Images of Other Consumers Influence Subsequent Taste Perceptions,” Journal of Marketing, Nov. 1, 2013; James McNeal, The Kids Market: Myth and Realities (Paramount Market Publishing, 1999); Sam Carr, “How Many Ads Do We See A Day In 2021?,” PPC Protect, Feb. 15, 2020 (; Kim Barker and Marian Wang, “Super-PACs and Dark Money: ProPublica’s Guide to the New World of Campaign Finance,” ProPublica, July 11, 2011 (; Nicholas Kusnetz, “Heartland Launches Website of Contrarian Climate Science Amid Struggles With Funding and Controversy,” Inside Climate News, March 13, 2020 (; “The Climate Denial Machine: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Blocks Climate Action,” Climate Reality Project, September 5, 2019 (; OpenSecrets, “Business, Labor & Ideological Split in Lobbying Data” (; OpenSecrets, “Industries”; “Analysis Finds 65% of Top Interior Meetings Included Energy Groups, Lobbyists,” Public Citizen, May 20, 2020 (; Jessica Murray, “Half of emissions cuts will come from future tech, says John Kerry,” The Guardian, May 16, 2021 (; Sandra Laville, “Twenty firms produce 55% of world’s plastic waste, report reveals,” The Guardian, May 17, 2021; Sharon Lerner, “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World,” The Intercept, July 20, 2019 (; Michele Nash-Hoff, “Why Are There So Few States with ‘Bottle Bill’ Laws?” Industry Week, Sept. 16, 2015 (; Laura Parker, “A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled,” National Geographic, Dec. 20, 2018 (; Jan Dell, “157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018,” Plastic Pollution Coalition, March 6, 2019 (; Nicole Javorsky, “‘Recyclable’ labels on plastic products are often misleading, says review,” The Hill, Feb. 18, 2020 (; Statista, “Production volume of high density polyethylene resin worldwide in 2016 and 2022” (; GAIA, “Discarded: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis,” April 2019 (

Did you find this article useful? Please consider supporting our work by donating or subscribing.

end of article