There are varied beliefs about what sort of change can be achieved with consumer power, and how people should go about it. Here’s a rundown of some basic questions.
- Positive or negative? – Do you want to avoid companies or products that you don’t support or be more proactive and spend money on those you think are particularly ethical?
- Company or product? – Do you want to choose an ethical product or look more broadly at the company behind it? The Fairtrade mark, for example, is based on rigorous criteria, but it takes account only of an individual product; the ethics of the company as a whole are not assessed. Some argue that purchasing such products encourages companies to develop their ethical strands. Others say that unethical companies should not be supported.
- Local or global? – Do you want to buy locally, for environmental or economic reasons? Or do you believe you have a duty to support producers in the global south? Do the two need to be in tension? Could you decide to buy locally where this is an option but choose Fairtrade where possible for products that are not grown or produced locally?
- Avoid or engage? – Should you avoid companies with which you disagree or is engaging with them more likely to lead to a change? Boycotts can put economic pressure on companies, but how do you decide what’s likely to be effective?
- Consumerism or politics? – How central are your shopping decisions to your attempts to achieve change? Some argue that shopping is more important than voting, as it can have more impact on the economy. Others see ethical consumerism as a distraction from more traditional forms of activism. Are you buying ethically because of the impact it has, because you don’t want to be complicit in immorality or as a part of a wider campaign? And how does it relate to ethical investment?