Even if we grow our own food and make our own clothes, none of us can avoid being a consumer altogether. Yet unfortunately, many of the products we buy come to us steeped in unethical practices such as worker exploitation, environmental harm, or animal suffering. So what can consumers do if they want to avoid supporting — and benefiting from — such wrongdoing?
The first weapon for consumers who want to buy ethically is knowledge. We must make the effort to learn about what we buy and avoid the temptation to stick our heads in the sand about the production history of an item we may be very excited about purchasing.
We must make it a habit to ask ourselves such questions as:
- Where did this product come from?
- Under what conditions was it manufactured?, and
- How can it be so cheap?
Answering the first two questions is sometimes easy, as when products are clearly labeled ‘fair trade’ or ‘eco-friendly.’ Other times it is much more difficult because labeling requirements typically demand disclosure only of a product’s ingredients and its country of origin. The Internet can, of course, be a big help here, especially given the creation of websites devoted to tracking corporate behavior such as corpwatch.org and transfairusa.org. These sites allow the user to type in a company name and learn about any reported ethical issues associated with that company.
The last question (How can it be so cheap?) is sometimes painful to ask because it may lead us to spend more money for what we want. That is, shopping ethically — buying products made with fairly-paid labor or sound environmental practices — often requires paying a premium price. If you shop with an eye only for paying the cheapest price, this dramatically increases the chances that you will not be buying ethically. While there are some wonderful exceptions to this rule, such as locally-grown vegetables, the mantra of ‘always lowest price’ typically overlooks the hidden moral costs that make those low prices possible.
However, asking these three questions will not allow us to buy ethically in each and every case. Sometimes a fully ethical alternative for a given product just isn’t available. The fact remains that sometimes it is impossible for the consumer to have completely clean hands. Then what to do?
One option is to simply do without that product. If that’s not feasible, then the next best strategy is to prioritize between the various imperfect choices. That is, I believe dirty hands are better than filthy hands, so we should look closely to see if one alternative is significantly better from the moral perspective. More about how to do that in a future post.
photo credit: dreamstime