Battle in Print: Ethical shopping

Kate Soper, 7 October 2007

The question is not whether ethical shopping can ‘save the world’. In itself, of course, it cannot. The real issue concerns the pressure that consumers might come to exert over time for a more sustainable, because less growth-oriented and more equitable economic order. Could consumers, if sufficiently numerous and militant in the ways they spend or withhold their money, activate the relay of changes that are needed, nationally and internationally, to bring about radical socio-economic reorganisation?

I pose the question in this form because there is no way that we can ‘save the world’ if we continue with turbo-capitalist expansion. Many will think it pure fantasy to suppose that this can be curbed or reversed. But the longer we persist with it, the more intense the competition for habitable spaces and dwindling resources will become, and the more uncivil the methods that affluent societies will use to defend their relative advantage. We could in the near future be asked to tolerate measures that most of us today would regard as deeply repugnant, measures that would spell an end to humanitarian morality as we know it: the quite blatant and cynical manipulation of poverty, disease and famine to control global population; the coercion of Third World economies into an almost exclusive servicing of First World needs for bio-fuels and other energy substitutes; ever more fascistic policies on immigration in privileged regions such as the EU to check the flow of eco-refugees from the more devastated areas of the globe. Since these moves will encourage increasingly desperate forms of terrorist activity they could well issue in genocidal and even terminal forms of global warfare.

Utopian, then, as it may seem to try to check consumerism and the growth economy, it is equally unrealistic to think that we can happily continue over the coming century, let alone into the more distant future, with current rates of expansion and material consumption. Massive lifestyle changes are essential if we are to salvage a reasonable existence for the most deprived global communities and to adapt to future ecological constraints. Yet none of the elites, neither the executives presiding over their corporate hegemony, nor their currently all too supportive neo-liberal governments, seem at present to have any serious interest in moving the world in that direction. And though some on the left may continue to trust in the revolutionary agency of the working-class, this is hardly much in evidence as a force for social change today.

It is in this context that one has to look to the possible agency of enlightened consumers themselves. And certainly in recent times environmental concern has combined with moral revulsion over ‘fat cat’ greed and labour exploitation to bring about a huge expansion of ‘ethical shopping’. This suggests that people are now experiencing a greater sense of global connectedness, and more responsibility for the distant impacts of their private actions. As such, it should be welcomed.

But ethical shopping can also readily function as ‘greenwash’ for producers and retailers, and is sometimes little more than a fashion gimmick (cf. Monbiot 24.7.2007). Above all, it remains a form of shopping in a world where there is already too much of it. Being associated with dutiful buying rather than self-interest, it does little to invite us to revise conceptions of our own well-being and the role of consumption in securing it. Even ethical shoppers too often remain captive to the ‘consumerist’ understanding of the ‘good life’ to the exclusion of other visions of how to live and prosper. And though companies may boast now of their ‘ethical’ credentials, since profit remains their primary goal it will not be from them that we shall hear of what we all might gain from rejecting Euro-American ‘over-development’ and its shopping mall culture rather than continuing to keep it on track.

What would really make a difference would be if people simply stopped buying and driving and flying so much: if they were to reject the consumerist lifestyle itself and seek out the pleasures of a less materially encumbered, high-speed and stressful existence. There are few signs of this happening at present. Indeed, despite the public obsession with global warming and its apocalyptic outcomes, most people seem unprepared at present to get out of their cars and planes or commit to more eco-friendly modes of living.

But few signs do not mean none at all, and there is now some evidence that the affluent lifestyle is beginning to generate its own forms of disaffection, either because of its negative by-products in the way of stress, ill-health, obesity, congestion, loss of community and personal forms of contact, or because it pre-empts other enjoyments. Such disaffection may find expression in nostalgia for certain kinds of material, or objects or practices that no longer figure in everyday life as they once did; it may lament the loss of certain kinds of landscape, or spaces (to play or talk or loiter or meditate or commune with nature); it may deplore the fact that were it not for the dominance of the car, there would be an altogether different system of provision for other modes of transport, and both rural and city areas would look and feel and smell and sound entirely different. Or it may just take the form of a vague and rather general malaise that descends in the shopping mall or supermarket: a sense of a world too cluttered and encumbered by material objects and sunk in waste, of priorities skewed through the focus on ever more extensive provision and accumulation of things.

These reactions are by no means universal; they are those, if you like, of an avant garde of consumers, and what is emerging for the most part is ambivalence about rather than outright rejection of the consumerist lifestyle. Yet they lend some support to the frequently voiced scepticism about the long-term satisfactions offered by consumerist culture - a formation that consumption theorists have often analysed as compensatory for various forms of existential deprivation (of security or control or self-esteem) rather than as intrinsically fulfilling. And they are given further backing in the recently published New Economics Foundation (2006) ‘Happy Planet’ index of well-being and other studies indicating that increased wealth is no guarantee of increased well-being (eg. Layard 2005; cf. Purdy 2005). If, then, we are looking for the potential actors in any democratically achieved shift to a sustainable order in the West today (and to think of achieving it by any other means is crazy), we may now need to recognise the power of consumption to influence change, and the role in that of new forms of consumer disenchantment and resistance.

But this will not become a more general force for change without the stimulus of counter-consumerist visions and representation of the ‘good life’. And at present, alas, everything is stacked against the provision of any alternative hedonist ‘imaginary’. Companies are deeply averse to the promotion of non-commodified conceptions of human gratification and personal development and devote mammoth advertising budgets to ensuring that we continue to associate happiness with buying more. They are also now targeting children at an ever earlier age, and employing increasingly manipulative strategies to ‘groom’ them for a life of consuming. Dependent as it is on the revenue from commercials, the media does little to check this merchandising activity. And mainstream political parties continue to preach the importance of expanding markets and boosting high street sales to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about the ‘good life’.

This repression of any alternative erotics of consumption is disastrous if we are serious about combating climate change. Now, more than ever before, we need to open up the space for promoting the attractions of a post-consumerist lifestyle, and to encourage a different response to the material culture of our times. We need an aesthetic revisioning whereby goods currently viewed as enticingly glamorous lose their appeal in virtue of their association with unsustainable resource use, noise, toxicity or their legacy of unrecyclable waste. We also need to challenge the presumption that ‘progress’ and ‘development’ are synonymous with speeding up and saving time, and to expose the puritanical aspects of a work-driven existence. For very few of the benefits we might have reaped in the form of free time from the unprecedented productivity of the last century have been realised, and we remain subject to a time-economy that is proving hugely damaging both for the environment and for our own well-being. (Bunting 2004; Schor 1991). It may be true that many workers have become addicted to the ‘workaholic’ routine. Yet the blurring of the work-life distinction that is the inevitable accompaniment of the 60-70 hour week and constant availability comes at enormous personal cost, and erodes the possibility of any other form of fulfilment.

Sceptics will always question whether people are capable of benefiting from more free time. But in a culture where being in work is so closely linked with personal success, and the unemployed almost always deprived of the funds, amenities and forms of education needed either for the carefree enjoyment of idleness or for the more concentrated and passionate pursuit of private hobbies or cultural or sporting activities, it is hardly surprising if ‘free time’ is seen as a problem rather than a source of fulfilment. We cannot predict how people would react to less work were it no longer so closely associated with the stigmata of idleness, unemployment and reduced citizenship.

If we were to reduce time spent working, it would have the further benefit of allowing both people, goods and information to travel more slowly. For how fast we want - or ‘need’ - to travel (or communicate) is itself a function of other aspects of an overall lifestyle and pattern of consumption. The affluent modern lifestyle is a structure of interconnected modes of consumption each one of which is integral to the whole and reliant upon it. But for that very reason, too, shifts in one area will always have knock-on effects in others and thus influence the overall pattern. Were car use severely restricted, lives would be saved, communities revitalised, children released from nervy supervision and given back their freedom to play, and the lives of all of us transformed, especially in urban areas.

Moreover, wherever proper provision is made, to walk or cycle is also to enjoy sights and scents and sounds and the pleasures (and benefits) of physical activity and forms of solitude and silence denied to those who travel in more insulated and speedier ways. Obviously, no one could rely exclusively on these modes of transport, but most of the obstacles to mass cradle to the grave biking could readily be overcome through more committed and imaginative forms of provision: why not multi-lane tracks, with cover for those who want it, cycle rickshaws and motorised bikes for the too young and less able, showers and changing room and cafes at regular intervals on cycle tracks? Schemes like this look implausible in the context of the car culture, but the costs would be negligible relative to those of continued expansion of the motorways (especially if one factors in the medical costs likely to be saved through better public health).

In sketching these ‘post-consumerist’ scenarios, I am not underestimating the difficulties of building support for an alternative politics of consumption. But they can further the desire for changes in social and environmental policy by drawing out the other pleasures intimated in the dissatisfactions with the present. Visions of sustainable societies might also figure as ideals through which less developed countries can reconsider the conventions and goals of ‘development’ itself - and thereby better understand the worst consequences of north-west ‘over-development’ and how to avoid them. In these respects, post-consumerist projection should be understood as an essential contribution to the securing of a fairer and more ecologically sensitive world order. Ethical shopping has a contribution to make to this. But the real question is whether we can transform the consumerist ethos itself.


Kate Soper is a professor of philosophy at the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University. She is co-editor of Counter-Consumerism and Its Pleasures and an ESRC/AHRC Cultures of Consumption award-holder for ‘Alternative Hedonism’ research project.


Bunting, M. (2004). Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives. London, Harper Collins.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London, Allen Lane.

Monbiot, G. (24.7.2007). ‘Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are’. Guardian.

New economics foundation (nef). (2006). The Happy Planet Index.

Purdy, D. (2005). ‘Human happiness and the stationary state’. Soundings 31: 133-46.

Schor, J. (1991). The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure. London and New York, Harper Collins.

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