5 things I wish I had known when I thought ethical consumerism would save the world

Jazzlyn Breen is skeptical about keep cups

Ethical consumerism, and more specifically moral veganism, have the best of intentions. However,  they are not effective methods of changing the systems which they oppose. Buying a keep cup and wearing an ethically made shirt will not save the world. I’m very sorry.

This might sounds incredibly pessimistic, but hear me out. I’m not out here to attack vegans or people who own keep cups, those things are great – they just aren’t the epitome of activism for creating real, tangible change to the systems which they are attempting to transform.


I’m going to preface this with the bold statement that ethical consumption under capitalism does not, and cannot exist. The argument behind ethical consumption is to spend your money (capital) on goods and services that do little or no harm, and thus the market demand for these products will increase, which will eventually lead to a change in the systems of production in the world. However, the nature of capitalism relies on exploitation, due to the need for capital accumulation by those who control the mechanics of society (the means of production). This means, that wherever possible, costs are cut in production to provide the highest possible surplus profit. This can be seen in instances such as poor working conditions, insufficient pay or over-working of workers. In a highly competitive capitalist economy it is the reality that even a supposably ‘ethical’ business model is not exempt from the realities of the capitalist market system. As products become increasingly popular, to keep up with the market demand and continue to exist under capitalism, exploitation will have to occur. If an ethical business cannot keep their goods and services at a price where they are accessible to the majority of the population, they will never cause any real change, and to keep prices low exploitation must occur. So here we have a paradox. Cheap goods = high demand and exploitation. Expensive, ‘ethical goods’ = low demand and no real change.


Even if we were to disregard the realities of the economic market under capitalism, the question of what is ‘ethical’ is still very relevant. A vegan may argue that if no animals are exploited in the creation of a product, then it is ethical. However what about the workers who may be exploited in the process of making the vegan food? A humanitarian may argue that as long as the goods or services are created by people who are paid a fair wage for their labour, then it is ethical. But what if animal products are used in the creation of these goods? The truth is that ‘ethical’ consumption is objective, and no one can be forced to think one way or another.


Despite your definition of what is or isn’t ethical, ethical consumption is based on the belief that an individual’s buying power can shape the markets of the world to produce goods more ethically. This however is a superficial critique, as it focuses on the consumption of products rather than the production process itself. It is not in the consumption of goods that the problem lies, but in its production.

The problem of excessive waste cannot be solved through buying a keep cup – the issue runs much, much deeper.  It is the systematic problem of capital accumulation under capitalism which forces unbridled consumption in order for the economy to stay afloat. New markets must be constantly found and more resources must be constantly exploited. The result is mass production of things we do not need, in any way, but which are marketed to consumers, so that the cycle of capital can start over again. It is not market demand which causes excessive production, as we have no real need for the majority of the worlds produced goods, but rather the necessity of capitalism to successfully market goods to consumers in order to obtain more capital. Did I think I needed a red iPhone before I saw an ad for a red iPhone? No. Do I now want a red iPhone? Yes, absolutely.


The view of individual ethical consumption as a means for change is an incredibly neoliberal one. Neoliberalism forces individualism in every aspect of life, and most especially in our working lives. The pressure to succeed individually in your own career is a universal feeling. The quest to make more money is an individual journey. Labour under capitalism has become alienating and often lacks rewards which are not economic. Therefore, it is easy to see why an individual would believe that it is through their own individual, ethical, actions that they would be able to change the systems which they have problems with. However when over 90% of human waste is produced by big businesses, even if the entire world cut down their individual waste production by half, we would only reduce the worlds waste by 5%. It is not an individual’s ethical consumption that will fix this system – but through real political change. It is in mass movements which force states and economic systems to drastically change their workings. Using a keep cup everyday will not put a dint in the extreme global production of greenhouse gasses and waste compared to the output of coal mines and global plastic production. There is no way that, under the capitalist system, economically productive markets will collapse as a result of a small protest by a small number of consumers. It is only through systematic change to the politics of the world that real change can come about.


Often those who believe that ethical consumption is the way in which to change the systems of productions will put extreme pressure on others to act in the most ethical way possible. To only buy vegan food, to only shop in ethical clothing stores, to never buy plastic etc. However, under the system of capitalism, which requires most people to work full time 9-5 jobs to even afford rent, this is an unrealistic pressure. Arguments which demonise people for being unable to afford healthy vegan food are aplenty, and I am definitely not immune to having believed them myself. It is true that beans, lentils and rice provide a lot of protein and nutrients, for a little cost, but realistically it is not fair to expect someone to live off the cheapest most basic of legumes in order to keep up with what is seen as an almost religious view of ethical consumption. These types of arguments fail to address the real systematic barriers which stop people from being able to reach the god tier of veganism. The existence of food deserts, managing health conditions and having to support more than just yourself for food are just some of the realities of life for those living under the capitalist system. Not everyone is able to live in an inner west apartment and afford chia seeds. Some people, in fact most people, do not live in areas where fresh fruit and vegetables are constantly available, where they have the time to soak lentils or make green smoothies, and forcing a standard of ethics upon these people is unproductive.

The only way to escape the cycle of extreme exploitation of the worlds resources is to escape from the capitalist cycle of capital accumulation. There is no way to buy your way out of capitalism, no matter how ethically you source your clothes, how often you use your keep cup or how many of your friends you get to go vegan – the economic system of capitalism is not going to change. And while it exists there is no way to escape the exploitation which is necessary for its existence.

So, my advice to past me, who was a very passionate vegan, intent on changing the world through one vegan convert at a time – channel that passion into learning more about the systems of exploitation and oppression which exist because of capitalism, and start acting on changing them. Or destroying them, whatever works.

This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.

This article has been updated to match the print edition.