Battle in Print: Will ethical shopping save the world?

George Hoare, 25 September 2007

Affluence endows us with two new powers. The first is the potential to remove poverty (if some have more than enough, then we can begin to move to a situation where all have at least enough); the second is the removal of necessity from our choices in the marketplace. In other words, many of us are in the privileged position of being able to decide what job we want to take and what products we want to buy, rather than being constrained by terrible hunger or the straightjacket of convention or scarce alternatives. These new powers impose moral demands on us: we ought to, as far as possible, improve the position of the worst off in society, and we ought to try to structure our job choices (a faceless but well-paid position in an investment bank or city law firm, or a far more impoverished - relatively at least - job in a charity or the public sector) and our choices of what to buy in order to enrich rather than impoverish those producers affected by our decisions.

Ethical shopping, then, is a celebration of the power of our choices as consumers. It praises the idea that we can help to remove poverty by appropriately deciding what we want to buy. And clearly many of us revel in this celebration: in 2005 ethical shopping (ethical finance, personal products, eco-travel, ethical food and the like) was valued at £29.3 billion, greater for the first time than the alcohol and tobacco industries (at £28.0 billion) (Co-operative Bank 2006). Shopping ethically now accounts for 5 per cent of the typical shopping basket (up 11 per cent on 2004), suggesting that ethical shoppers now extend beyond the apparently outdated stereotype of the bearded, Birkenstock-wearing inhabitant of Chiswick, sipping on an ethically outstanding latte from an all-naturally-sourced cafe, with the Guardian under one arm while out walking their dog on a leash made of string.

While we might feel (rightly) uncomfortable at ethical shopping’s exaltation of consumerism, I want to make a slightly different argument here, one about the relationship between ethical shopping and its goal of changing things for the better - in short, between ethical shopping and politics. I want to show that if ethical consumerism can fit into a plausible theory of how we go about changing the plight of the worst off in our, or other, societies, then it is clearly insufficient. Ethical shopping alone cannot save the world, if anyone thought it could. We also need to understand the importance of our productive choices (of what to produce, or what job to take), and the importance of the political decisions we take, from campaigning to setting the distributional rules (of who gets what through which social institutions) that determine how well other people’s lives go.

There is something right about ethical shopping, though - we do need to understand the basic insight that our actions as affluent, powerful agents have a genuine impact on the producers of the third world. However, we also need to bear in mind that this insight applies to other sorts of choices - ones which are far more consequential, and which require far more engagement than what we want to buy and consume. The political theorist G.A. Cohen argues that justice is demanding: ‘the personal is indeed political: personal choices to which the writ of the law is indifferent are fateful for social justice’ (Cohen 2005: 142). In his view, the realm of justice extends beyond institutions that distribute social resources to the marketplace and the home. I think this is right - our political philosophy (our thoughts about what we think justice is) is related to our personal behaviour (how we choose to act in our daily lives, and how those actions bring about consequences which are relevant to justice). We should be wary of disregarding ethical shopping as simply a product of ‘middle-class guilt’, or as irrelevant, since it shows an ignorance of basic sociology to say that choices in the household don’t go on to create norms that affect people’s life chances and, analogously, to deny that what we get as producers is ultimately influenced by what we choose as consumers. But we should also point out to those who think that ethical shopping can save the world that it’s a small step, and also that it’s not the first step.

We are continually faced with choices in the marketplace: the simple act of buying a coffee or a pair of shoes now provides us with a range of potential products which fit. Traditionally, consumers have been modelled by economists as only interested in two things: price and quality. However, with an ethical shopper, a number of additional questions have to be asked. What was used in making this product? Where does it come from? Is it recycled? Where any farmers/animals/natural resources harmed or exploited? What alternatives are there which would cause less pollution? Luckily, the possibly bewildering number of considerations can be summed up (for those with more reflective purchasing habits) by visiting Ethical Consumer magazine’s online shoppers’ guide ( in order to determine which tin of pop does the least harm. What ethical shopping aims to get us into doing is thinking about the full cost of our actions (the ‘comprehensive outcome’) in terms of the effect on the producers and environment, rather than only those things - price and quality - that directly affect us, or even just the immediate retailer selling us the product.

The central problem with ethical shopping is that buying and consuming goods are inherently atomistic activities: they are things that individuals can and do carry out without any kind of group action behind them. Ethical shoppers do not have to meet or interact with other people in executing their consumption choices, and consequently no networks of activists, or even concerned citizens, are formed. The market has long been seen by sociologists from Marx and Durkheim as an atomising force that splits up people and forces them to make choices in isolation from other people. The central paradox of ethical shopping, then, is how to impose an adequately formed idea of the political onto actions which we take alone, atomised and isolated from those who may have the same values. Our role as consumers in the marketplace gives us only two choices: we either buy (show ‘loyalty’ to a company or a product) or we boycott (and ‘exit’ the exchange) (Stoker 2006). The most politically engaged sort of action - to ‘voice’ our concerns and attempt to debate with people or companies and change their minds - is not available. (We might also add that our ‘exit’ on its own is pretty insignificant - it is impossible to tell why someone hasn’t bought a particular product.)

Thinking in this way, we can distinguish between two outcomes of ethical shopping: one which I want to call a ‘political’ outcome, and one which I want to call an ‘apolitical’ outcome. An apolitical outcome of ethical shopping is anything which is achieved collectively in the weak sense: its realisation did not require a co-ordinated campaign. These types of outcome are widely feted by ethical consumption campaigners, and they include changing people’s attitudes, changing the makeup of retailers’ stocks of organic and fair trade products, and changing the incentives for multinational companies to produce ethically. These are also the most likely to be achieved, since they are both low-cost for consumers (requiring little engagement), but also seem to tap into public attitudes. A survey carried out by the Financial Times in February 2007 found that a third of respondents would pay higher prices for ethical brands, giving firms clear incentives to change their practices (Grande 20.2.2007). A political outcome, on the other hand, is one which could not have happened without a politically mobilised group behind it. A study on citizenship in Britain notes that two of the more famous instances of this kind of outcome realised by ‘ethical consumption groups’ were Shell’s decision to reverse its policy regarding the disposal of its Brent Spar oil drilling platform and Nestle’s modification of its policy towards Ethiopian debt (Pattie et al. 2004).

Armed with this distinction, I want to argue that the greatest danger of ethical shopping is the possible achievement of apolitical outcomes. Ethical shopping is often argued to represent a ‘new’ form of political engagement (see Norris 2002), one which particularly appeals to those who regard themselves as having disengaged entirely from formal, parliamentary politics. However, we cannot forget that there is a sense in which ethical shopping is non-collective and focuses on the individual, and is confined to the role of a choice which, while important, we might plausibly argue is a matter of private morals. There is a danger that ethical shopping represents (or, less likely, but more worryingly, feeds into) a state of disengagement from politics as purposive, collective action concerned with altering the distributional values of social institutions. It encourages us to see ourselves as political actors in an incredibly limited sense, since we may be able to achieve our goals through the decentralised hand of the market, invisible to others whose analogous decisions shifted incentives and brought about the increased shelf space assigned to ethically sourced goods. We act collectively, but individually, and so miss out on the opportunity to mobilise around the underlying goals of our action.

The proper politicisation of consumption, then, depends on small numbers of activists using digital technologies like the internet in ‘identifying, promoting and channelling appropriate consumer choices to maximize their symbolic and political significance’ (Hay 2007: 25). This is how the political outcomes mentioned above were achieved. Ethical shoppers require intermediaries in order to mobilise around issues and move them from the depoliticised private sphere - where considerations of justice are important - into the public sphere where co-ordinated movements enable activists to achieve changes which achieve underlying goals (Hay 2007). And of course we can contrast this atomised situation of consumption with, we might argue, intrinsically solidaristic decisions about productive choices (in the job environment agents interact with other concerned parties) and political campaigns mobilised around specific distributional rules.

It is important to situate the argument I’m making in the context of the political disengagement we observe today, since we may think ethical shopping is an activity that is not only more likely to be apolitical than political, but also that it may be a symptom of wider disengagement, or even a cause. Nationally representative surveys tell us that while only 4 per cent of people boycotted products in 1983, almost a third (31 per cent) had done so in 1999. Three in ten (28 per cent) of respondents had ‘bought products for political, ethical or environmental reasons’ (Pattie et al. 2003; Parry et al. 2002). This compares to only 6 per cent having attended a political meeting, and a meagre one in fifty (2 per cent) having engaged in an illegal protest (footnote 1). Clearly, the easier forms of political engagement are more popular - the question is whether, if they even constitute properly political action in the first place, they are going to lead us away from genuinely effective ways of affecting the changes towards which ethical shopping aspires.

Ethical shopping, as the fulfilment of a moral demand of affluence, is thus at its worst individualistic and anti-political in a way that choices about what to produce (i.e. what job to take) or what distributive criteria to impose on social institutions through political action are not. The latter two sorts of action are based around individuals recognising the role of solidarity and group action in effective action, rather than individuals acting essentially alone. We shouldn’t, then, be particularly opposed to ethical shopping, but instead realise that it represents a slightly limited, or, at worst, perniciously apolitical and atomised, way of discharging an increasingly keenly felt responsibility of having a lot when there are others who don’t have enough. Using the logic of ethical consumerism, we can show how this is insufficient. If we’re going to think seriously about the effects of our choices, we need to think more about those choices that matter the most, our productive and political choices. Our choices as consumers have relatively little impact; for that reason we should shop harder for a different solution to the moral demands of affluence than the one ethical shopping provides.


George Hoare is studying for a DPhil in political sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford.


1. There is slight disagreement between Pattie et al. (2004) and some other surveys (for instance, the European Social Survey) so I went for the most optimistic values I could find.


Cohen, G.A. (2005). If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich. Harvard, Harvard University Press.

Co-operative Bank (2006). The Ethical Consumerism Report.

Grande, C. (20.2.2007). ‘Ethical consumption makes mark on branding’. Financial Times.

Hay, C. (2007). Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge, Polity.

Norris, P. (2002). Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Parry, G. et al. (1992). Political Participation and Democracy in Britain. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pattie, C. et al. (2004). Citizenship in Britain: Values, Participation and Democracy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Stoker, G. (2006). Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. London, Palgrave.

Festival Buzz

Can GM crops feed the world - Thomas Deichmann

"Disagreement has never felt more important and more enjoyable than at Battle of Ideas."
Jess Search, Chief executive, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation