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You Can Fix This Through Consumption: An Analysis of Sustainable Living and Being an "Ethical Consumer"

When I first wrote this post idea in my notebook, I thought I would be writing a guide or doing a challenge: "How To Live More Sustainably" or "How To Be An Ethical Consumer". I was fascinated by that term "ethical consumer" being thrown around because I know what people are attempting to convey. They are branding themselves as someone who is aware of what impact they have on the environment and who is willing to change their lifestyle drastically in order to make sure that the effect they have is small, aiming assist with the fight against climate change. They go vegan, they shop at small, local businesses, they use public transport, they are aware of the horrors of fast fashion and want to do away with excessive spending on things that are going to end up in a landfill. And I thought that this was what I would end up writing about, about how I'm trying to change my life to help the world.

But as I came to do research, my fascination with (and underlying wariness of) the term was confirmed. The implication of the term ethical consumer is that the individual can change their lifestyle in meaningful ways by consuming. Moreover, that this is enough activism for the individual. Spending becomes political change. We think we can make 'sustainable capitalism', as Mary Retta puts it, that buying in a more environmentally conscious way is a 'viable solution [for] saving the planet'.

This seems to be a way for the individual to have some kind of control over what seem like cataclysmic, world-ending disasters happening all around us. An article in The Guardian states that 'with a massive investment of effort by 2030, [we can] just about keep the warming level below 1.5C' and that without that effort, we would see events like 'ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal cities being flooded into inhabitability'. On top of this, we know the culprits. The statistic that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions is shown to us so often, it's hard to feel like anything we do has any power. As Leena Norms in a YouTube video on the topic argues, nature will continue on after these effects, but humanity will not. Claiming any power whatsoever is all the individual person actually has.

And this is done through spending. We reduce our carbon footprint by boycotting brands who are known for fast fashion, which relies on the exploitation and oppression of people of colour in the global south. Marie Beschi explains that, under capitalism, brands are incentivised to create a business model 'to maximize profit at the cost of workers’ health and rights, turning a blind eye to illegal subcontracting, forced or unpaid overtime, and child labor'. We also believe we can help by going vegan. According to Wired, we know that 'almost a third of the world’s freshwater usage goes into animal products'. This is on top of the fact, once again, that capitalism makes industries like factory farming (as well as the suffering of animals) profitable.  By choosing to no longer shop at these places and changing our lifestyles in these ways, we signal to these brands, and to capitalism, that we don't support these actions.

A table displaying people's eating habits and what their CO2 emissions are,
Source: Ethical Consumer

As much as I wanted to believe that all of these changes were good, and believe me, I do want to, what I was struggling with was seeing them as meaningful. As Jason Mark argues, the concern around personal responsibility 'obscures the culpability of the fossil fuel giants and other industrial actors in fueling the crisis'. How can you compete with corporations by changing minor habits? Is this activism? Can consumption ever be ethical? When the solution is to continue buying, then I feel like the answer to that is no.

Writer Elizabeth Cline is of the opinion that the creation of the ethical consumer is part of the neo-liberal tradition where the individual person is able to compete with a market out to exploit them and the resources they hold. We are lead to believe that the marketplace is self-correcting, that if we shop with our values (e.g. with sustainability in mind) then companies will fall in line. We hope that they will be more responsible if we ask them nicely. Cline argues, however, that this is a fallacy created by capitalism to make us believe we have power over the market, with the intent to keep us buying whilst they can continue to exploit the land and workers. What this does is put individual action on the same level as the companies responsible for destroying the planet. As Retta puts it, there is a refusal to 'delineate between individual choices and larger, structural action'. This is furthered by the fact that they are almost always put in a binary, where either you change as an individual or you participate in the revolution, and that's it. Matt Beard puts it best when he writes:

'There seems to be something uniquely cruel about creating a system that determines ethical seriousness by purchasing behaviour, thereby stigmatising the poor and lightening the load on the wealthy. This only becomes more egregious when you consider the various ways in which wealth is accumulated under capitalism – often on the backs of the same workers who can’t afford not to be complicit in the ethical missteps that often end up lining the pockets of the very same elites who can then afford a clean conscience.'

It's not that individual efforts do nothing. They have an effect. It's just that it is often small and targeted at the wrong place, and at the wrong people. When your individual efforts are just consumerism rebranded and your political efforts are non-existent, then what impact is being had? Even the political efforts being enacted can be devastating if they don't acknowledge the ways that capitalism, white supremacy and ableism have been woven into the environmental movements.

A protester holding up a sign that reads: 'Seals our culture, income, food'
Source: CBC

I watched the 2016 documentary Angry Inuk, a film that legitimately changed my whole opinion on hunting. I was not expecting to go into this film agreeing with what was being said but I did. The documentary follows the Inuit, indigenous people in Canada, who were fighting to keep their right to hunt seals, a cultural tradition amongst their people and one of the only ways they are able to compete in white capitalism. It seeks to debunk much of the narrative pushed by environmentalist groups, arguing that the way they hunt is sustainable and has been sustainable long before white colonisers came. In contrast to factory farming, the Inuit use all the meat and the skin, and it is skin with which they are able to keep their people out of poverty. This is in direct contrast to factory farming, the way many predominantly white cultures participate in capitalism, killing animals for profit rather than out of necessity. The activism to prevent these people from keeping up this tradition sent them into poverty and further marginalised a group of people already oppressed by the system, making them further outsiders by not allowing them to feed and gather resources for themselves. 

The YouTube channel Climate in Colour states that 80% of the world's biodiversity is looked after by indigenous people, who make up only 5% of the earth's population. Not only do they have the least impact on the climate, they are the ones who are actively trying to save it. Furthermore, Kima Nieves argues that it is ridiculously privileged to punish indigenous people for their traditional practices of hunting animals and using their parts for clothes and ceremonial pieces, when it is industrialisation and capitalism that 'give way to negative ecological impacts, animal mistreatment and unethical agricultural practices', especially considering that colonialism to this day 'denies Indigenous people on reservations adequate nutrition, and offers food at astronomical prices'.

Another example of misguided environmentalism is the plastic straw ban a few years ago, that hoped to reduce the amount of plastic being put into the ocean. Plastic straws only make up 0.025% of the plastic that ends up as waste, and yet the legislation overstates its harm, and as a result, put many disabled people in danger. As both Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and Annie Elainey state in their respective videos on the topic, plastic straws are a medical device, that are safe and durable enough to be used without injury to the person using them. By banning plastic straws, and not providing alternatives that will suit the needs of disabled people, this both puts disabled people in danger of choking, harm and even allergic reactions to the alternatives, on top of putting the burden of accessibility on the disabled person. Many of the resources that are needed to provide assistance and independence to those with disabilities are non-renewable, and like the seal hunting, the guilt and shame of the damage to the climate has been thrown at the wrong people.

A chart showing the alternative to single use plastic straws
Source: Jessica Kellgren-Fozard

These small acts like banning seal hunting and plastic straws, both of which have very little impact on the environment, do very little to affect climate change and actively harm marginalised communities is the action taken by white able-bodied capitalism to assuage environmentalists out of necessary policy change. By evoking the image of a crying baby seal or a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose, they can pull on the heart strings of those who are not very politically active and evoke the idea that it's common sense that these things are wrong. Because the majority of people are unwilling to do their own further research, legislation against these things gets passed with virtually no argument from the majority, and those who will be actually greatly affected by these policies are silenced by the idea that these things are just obviously wrong. Meanwhile, actual change to factory farming, to holding large corporations accountable for their oil drilling and their plastic dumping is not pushed very hard at all because it's environmentalism that takes a lot of effort and collective action. Activism that is performative and requires minimal effort has the smallest impact against climate change.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that we can't buy our way out of climate change and we can't have meaningful policy change without the consultation, and often centralisation, of marginalised voices. As Cline argues, capitalism will always pull towards the exploitation of its workers and it will divide those workers based on oppression because it serves to benefit the system in place. You can't use the market to change this. There has to be a radical shift on the part of the collective. And this isn't something to be ignored either because we all live on the planet and none of the other issues we currently have will ever be solved if the planet is under water/on fire.

The internet at times can take the nuance of these conversations, implying that either the individual must change their ways or it's only down to corporations causing the vast amounts of damage to do the work. I'm a believer that a single person's actions alone will do very little stop flooding and fires and the end of humanity. But the world has to change. And I believe it's going to, through the collective action and pressure on our governments to do better, to help where the average person simply has no power to. And once that happens, if that happens, the way the individual person lives in the world will be different because there won't be any choice in the matter. Being an "Ethical Consumer" will be mandatory.


I'm aware that this is quite a heavy post. I know because I spent a lot of time researching (and feeling depressed about) this issue. One of my main gripes about the research I've been doing is that the articles on this topic will often just end. They say things need to be done, that you personally should try and contribute, and then don't point you anywhere to do anything. You are just left with dread and anxiety in the guise of consciousness raising.

I'm not going to do that to you. The reality is there is still time and that there are small things to be done that can make real change. I've provided some links to organisations working put pressure on governments and corporations to change, many of which also work to provide for marginalised people across the globe.

  • PayUp Fashion is fighting the injustice of clothing companies making millions of garment workers redundant during the pandemic without pay. As a direct result of this, it has sent them into the gravest economic crisis of their lives. Sign the petition available on the website and donate if you are able.
  • Labour Behind the Label is working to improve the garment industry and the lives of those who make our clothes. See their pages for more information as well to donate.
  • Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, the ocean, and the environment. Sign the petitions available on the page and donate if you are able
  • Lakota's Law works closely with tribal nations and nonprofit compatriots to amplify Indigenous voices, provide renewable solutions in place of fossil fuel consumption, protect the voting rights of Native people, and provide on-the-ground support when and where it is needed most. That includes working with organisers to advance LGBT+ rights in Indian Country and help with challenges around COVID-19. Sign the petitions linked and donate to their cause.
  • ITK is an organisation working to improve the health and wellbeing of Inuit. See their page for resources as well to donate.
I'm going to provide a link here to a playlist of videos that helped with this research as well as a link to my Ko-fi for you to tip me if you enjoyed my work. Thank you for reading x


'Banning Straws Hurts People', Jessica Kellgren-Fozard <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

'I was wrong about climate change: here's why', leena norms <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Jason Mark, 'Yes, Actually, Individual Responsibility Is Essential to Solving the Climate Crisis', Sierra <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Kima Nieves, 'Vegan Activism and Anti-Indigeneity: Violating Indigenous Food Sovereignty', Terra Incognita <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Marie Beschi, 'The Harmful Effects of Fast Fashion', unpublished <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Mary Retta, 'Sustainable Influencers and the Problem with Trendy Environmentalism', bitchmedia <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Matt Beard, 'The dilemma of ethical consumption: how much are your ethics worth to you?', The Guardian <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Matt Reynolds, 'How does going vegan help save the planet? Here are the facts', Wired <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

Phil McDuff, 'Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism. Have we got the stomach for it?', The Guardian <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

'Straw Bans are DANGEROUS For Disabled People', Annie Elainey <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

'The Myth of Ethical Consumerism with Elizabeth Cline', The Sustainable Fashion Forum <> [accessed 01/04/2021]

'WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM?', Climate In Colour <>[accessed 01/04/2021]