Ethical consumption: is it even possible?

Looking at the global problems of waste and human exploitation.

In a society that is filled with greenwashing, Fairtrade stickers, and ‘eco-friendly’ produce, it’s hard to know whether ‘ethical’ products are really ethical. With human rights scandals plaguing companies such as Nike and Nestle, who maintain a large customer base to this day, what’s to say that every single product you buy doesn’t have a dark past of slavery, pollution, and horrific human rights abuse?

The Tree of Modern Life

You may believe that global supply chains are a simple, linear process. But they are not; to illustrate this complexity, imagine a tree. The trunk is the final product, with the branches representing all of the product’s components. For instance, a chocolate bar would be a trunk, and would have branches of cocoa, milk, sugar, and so on. But those branches have other branches too, into the millions. 

This means that it’s impossible for individuals, and even companies, to trace the origins, materials, geography, and practices of every single ‘branch’ in their supply chain. This can partially be attributed to sub-contracting and overseas factories lying about labour conditions. In 2019 it was revealed Target and Cotton On had been sourcing fabric from forced labour camps in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. But the brands themselves weren’t directly sourcing the material; the sub-contractors had been outsourcing the labour. 

Let us take a look at one of the most infamous industries – the chocolate industry. In 2018 nearly two million children were forced into labour in the chocolate industry in West Africa, where they spent hours under the hot sun harvesting cocoa beans, with no pay. And no chocolate producer is exempt from this, not even those which are deemed ‘ethical’. In 2019 it was revealed that UTZ certified cocoa farms were actually more likely to employ child labour practices than those uncertified. But as a consumer, standing in a supermarket isle, this is also concealed through falses promises offered by ‘ethical’ labelling.  

A Hard Pill to Swallow

Waste is another major issue in our current global market, and this includes the practice of recycling. The recycling industry was founded and funded by oil and plastic companies, to keep selling plastic products without consumer guilt. The companies promoted recycling through million-dollar advertising campaigns and lobby groups. British Petroleum created the term ‘carbon footprint’ to shift environmental responsibility to the individual person, rather than corporations: who have contributed to 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988

Shockingly, only 9% of plastic produced globally has been recycled. The rest has found its home in landfill or the ocean. This is because recycling is not economically viable. It is expensive to process plastic and can only be repurposed once or twice. The recycling industry in Australia is a perfect example of this. Due to weak regulations and government inaction, tonnes of recycled waste is actually going to landfill, as industry insiders say there is ‘no viable market’ for it. 

So why don’t we just use biodegradable products instead? Probably because they don’t actually biodegrade. To break down, organic compounds need oxygen, as well as micro-organisms and micronutrients from soil, which there is not a lot of in huge piles of waste. 

A Not-So-Modest Proposal

Biodegradable products are still a far better option than plastic, which takes up to 500 years to degrade and kills 100,000 marine animals annually. And buying the most ethical option affordable will signal to corporations that consumers are searching for ethical products.

But to make meaningful change, we need a novel system of production and consumption that limits unethical and environmentally harmful practices.

A more local market would be a good start. By limiting the supply chain to the domestic arena, there would be less risk of unethical labour practices that come with outsourcing to unknown suppliers. The ambiguity that arises in global supply chains, where labour and environmental impacts cannot be traced, is diminished significantly.

The bottom line though, is that multinational corporations are directly responsible for all the plastic produced, not the individual consumer. The neoliberal idea that individuals can single-handedly solve large geo-political issues like climate change and the violation of human rights was spread by the very companies that were at the heart of these catastrophes. What is needed is radical change: a global ban on plastic, forcing companies to produce products more sustainably while striving towards net zero emissions. 

In this current market, complete ethical consumption is not possible. It’s too expensive and the protection of unethical supply practices through global supply chains is insurmountable.

If we want real change, we have to focus on where the real issue lies; the fast-paced, wasteful, and profit-driven market.