Last week, I was a member of a panel conducting telephone interviews for a foundation seeking to hire a program officer. In response the request to “tell me something about yourself that I wouldn’t know from reading you resume,” one candidate responded that he actively promoted ethical consumerism.
“Ethical consumerism.” It brought back memories of when I worked on the U.S. Oval and would engage in conversation with a CV TEC employee who was fanatical about the topic.
As she explained to me, ethical consumerism is “the practice of purchasing products and services produced in a way that minimizes social and/or environments damage, while avoiding products and services deemed to have a negative impact on society or the environment.”
The goal is to create a sustainable future for the planet.
While articles on ethical consumerism would have you believe that it’s a recent phenomenon, it’s has actually been around for a while. A colonist protesting the Stamp Act of 1756 by boycotting tea or other British goods was a form of ethical consumerism. Although the term “boycott” wouldn’t originate until the late 19th century, when Irish Home Rule leader Charles Parnell coined the term in a campaign against an oppressive property owner, Charles Boycott.
Boycotts are a common form of ethical consumerism, especially at the social issue end of the ethical consumerism spectrum.
For many who practice ethical consumerism, it’s akin to a religion steeped in guilt. I can see my former nemesis, Sister Mary Agatha, scowling at me now. Are you drinking fair-trade coffee? Is that cup recyclable? How are you going to offset the carbon emitted by the airplane that took you on vacation? How much virtual water is in that shirt you’re wearing?
For the uninitiated, virtual water is the measure of all the water it takes to make the products you use. One website estimates that it takes approximately 715 gallons of water to make a new cotton shirt. It includes the amount of water used in irrigating growing the cotton, the water needed to dilute the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, etc.
Ethical consumerism can get confusing. Which is better, a petroleum-based plastic bag or an eco-friendly, reusable cotton bag dripping with virtual water?
As you might expect, research on the topic reveals that only a minority of consumers currently make purchases based on ethical considerations.
It’s often a question of “value” versus “values.”
Nevertheless, that may change as millennials (those born between 1982 and 2001) begin to mature in the marketplace. A recent Deloitte poll of millennials indicated that a majority thought that “business success” should go beyond financial performance and should include whether the business has a “positive impact on society.”
The report concludes that despite their reputation for being “slacktivists,” millennials are a generation with “a strong social conscious” and will be an economic force in the future. The report goes on to state that as consumers, if millennials are more likely to purchase from companies that have a strong community, social and environmental conscious, companies might be wise to develop well targeted, appealing products and services.
In spite of Time magazine's May 2013 cover proclaiming the millennial generation as the “me, me, me” generation, millennials want to buy products from companies that care and work for companies that care.
There’s even a website, Corporate Critic, that “indexes and rates the social responsibility of over 25,000 companies.” (Interestingly, Apple scores an 8 out of a possible 20 on Corporate Critic’s index, but I have yet to hear an outcry to boycott Apple from those socially conscious millennials. Just sayin’.)
Ethical consumer zealots argue that creating a sustainable future for the planet means going beyond deciding what’s ethical and unethical. It should move us from thoughtless consumption to thoughtful consumption, where we only purchase those goods and services that we require and not those we simply want.
They promote the concepts reduce, reuse, recycle where we reduce the amount of “stuff” we consume, reuse as much of it as possible, and recycle all that we can — and when purchasing something, make sure it’s as “ethical” a purchase as possible.
But, as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” What happens when an economy based on consumption encounters a marketplace with discriminating consumers?
Ah, there’s the rub.
I, however, will leave the discussion of the economic consequences of thoughtful consumption to my friend and economist, Colin Read.
Paul A. Grasso Jr., president and CEO, The Development Corporation, 190 Banker Road, Suite 500, Plattsburgh, call 563-3100.