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Consumer's Guilt: The Difficulty of Making Ethical Consumer Choices

While the ice caps melt and the forests burn, it seems like the very least

ordinary people could do is take a second to think about their levels

of consumption. The problem with consumption lies in the gulf between thinking about doing the right thing and actually acting on those

thoughts. Although it seems essential to our continuation of life on Earth,

it’s much more complicated to try and consume products ethically in 2021.

There are many hurdles between us and the finishing line of ethical consumption, especially as a student. The desire to consume combined

with the inability to afford many ethical high-quality goods leaves us in

a cycle of consumerism whereby the things we own are never quite sufficient. Along with this, companies can be deliberately misleading and manipulate marketing to convince students they are ethical. Perhaps ethical consumption could be seen as a first-world problem, but it is one with

detrimental effects to everyone. And in a world where people are keen

to be ethical consumers, it can be disheartening to find that there’s no

real way to achieve the moral ideal.

Your food shop is one place you confront multiple ethics-based decisions. Firstly, the products you choose to consume, particularly meat and dairy, are considered unethical in and of themselves. Despite all of

the research showing that vegetarian and vegan diets are better for the

environment, many of us still do not listen. Although it may seem like a

simple decision, for some people cutting out all animal products simply is

not feasible. Firstly, they may not be able to eat a balanced diet and get all

the necessary nutrients from the food they are consuming. This links to the

fact that many vegan alternatives to animal products are more expensive,

harder to find, and more difficult to cook with — three conditions that

busy (and, let’s be honest, lazy) students can’t really contend with. It’s hard enough as a student to work up the effort to cook a meal without adding

extra restrictions that could discourage you further. Food can also be

unethical depending on where it comes from, which means that when you try to be healthy and get some of your five-a-day, you could be adding thousands of air miles to your personal total or be eating fruit farmed by someone who got paid a pitiful amount. Ultimately, the choice to buy local produce from somewhere such as a farmers’ market is available, but no one can deny the difficulty for students who have just moved away from home and don’t have the time or money to act on those kinds of ethical desires.

There are many ethical hoops to jump through in the area of cosmetics,

too. Although it may not be impacting on climate change, animal testing for

cosmetic products is widely regarded to be both unnecessary and excessively cruel. But avoiding brands that test on animals is much harder than simply looking for a little rabbit symbol on a bottle. It can often involve frantically Googling in the Boots aisle to find out different companies’ stances on animal rights and trying to weigh up to what extent your favourite moisturiser is worth the guilt the next time you walk past a rabbit in the street.

To further confuse the situation, different countries have different standards for what is considered cruelty-free and different laws regarding the sale of products. For example, products sold in China are tested on animals to meet national safety requirements, meaning that if the company sells products there, they engage in animal testing. The question is whether this is significant enough to stop your purchase as your own bottle has

the cruelty-free stamp of approval? Or shall the guilt be too immense?

Beyond animal testing, there are other concerns when it comes to cosmetics. The very components of the products can be unethical in and of

themselves, with popular ingredients such as cacao, vanilla, and carnauba

wax being just some of the culprits. The controversy over palm oil was another ethical conundrum, with some people arguing that there should be

a ban on all palm oil products, whilst others suggested that it was better

to find products that sourced palm oil ethically. But how do you know

if your product contains the good palm oil or the bad one? There isn’t

enough space on the bottle for all the labels that would need to be

applied to trace the source of all the ingredients included.

Every product would have to come with a fact sheet detailing its ethical breakdown, or perhaps a scoring system could be developed so that you

could easily compare products. Should I be 65% ethical or 70% today? Brands don’t make it any easier by making words such as “natural” or “organic” seem synonymous with being ethical. The increase in ethical branding is a sign that it’s something consumers are demanding, but does this really make a difference to the practices of corporations?

Nonessential items, like that new top that looks dangerously similar to

the last one you bought two weeks ago, pose another ethical quandary. The neverending culture of fast fashion convinces many of us that

our clothes are no longer in style just months after we’ve bought them, and

this continuing pressure to buy new things means that there are just simply too many clothes in the world. One of the most horrific and unethical

aspects of this is the use of sweatshops by many companies, some of which

engage in practices of modern slavery. This is clearly indefensible, and due

to recent exposure of these practices, young people seem to be turning away from major brands and toward secondhand clothes from charity shops. Despite this, many young people can feel relatively deprived in

relation to their peers if they are unable to shop from the same places as

everyone else.

Although this is by no means a reasonable excuse, it goes

some way to explaining why popular brands continue to thrive despite people knowing that buying brand-new clothes is extremely harmful for the environment. The fashion industry accounts for one fifth of wastewater

globally and by 2050 is expected to make up 25% of the world’s remaining carbon budget. And yet, there are grey areas. As companies have

learnt that marketing themselves as ethical is an effective technique,

more and more brands advertise their clothing as being made with ethically sourced cotton or shipped via zero-emissions delivery services. The

problem is whether these companies are living up to the ethical reputations they claim to hold or whether they are merely following the market trend of being outwardly ethical.

In some ways, it can be seen as a simple excuse to claim that individuals have no responsibility as they can’t make a difference on their own. If everyone took this attitude, then surely there would have been very little change to consumerism in the past decade. It is individuals who have normalised more ethical consumption and pressurised companies to change their practices to some extent. The growth in vegetarian and vegan products, the widespread condemnation of animal testing for cosmetics and the rise of the sustainable fashion movement have all been based on individual behaviour. However, judgement and guilt should be applied with caution. Making ethical consumer choices is more complicated than simply giving things up.

We need to accept that lifestyle changes are easier for some people than others — financial considerations, societal pressure, and marketing all stand in the way of making informed ethical decisions. Ultimately, people should be praised for trying and although everyone could probably do more, consumers are at the mercy of the businesses supplying the products. If blame needs to be placed anywhere, it is certainly not on the students buying one too many pairs of jeans.

Illustration: Sarah Knight

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