Elements of an Ethical Consumer Society

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This essay focuses on ethical consumerism and building an ethical consumer society.

Submitted: May 11, 2015

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Submitted: May 11, 2015



Frances Dong


Elements of an Ethical Consumer Society


The sociology of consumerism is mainly concerned with how people react to the social practices and expectations of consumption. Building on my previous independent study on global branding, I will examine consumption as a characteristic of society and the roles it plays in cultural practices. The ultimate question I intend to explore is whether ethical consumption is possible on a national, multinational, and, or, global scale. 

I will explore this concept by examining current consumer related movements, corporate social responsibility initiatives, and current literature regarding ethical consumption. This study will ultimately summarize my findings on how to incorporate ethical consumption practices with corporate social responsibility initiatives in building future global brands.

Consumerism is the overarching cultural ideology embodied by members of a consumer society (Kozinets 2008); meaning that consumerism can be viewed as a reflection and characteristic of society through consumer action, interaction, and reaction. What is consumed is considered as having value to an individual consumer based on the reflected values of the larger consumer society. Additionally, the notion of consumption also entails consideration to the method of consuming. 

Consumerism, as a characteristic of society, differs from consumption in that consumption is an activity that people engage in. However, in studying consumption patterns of individual buying habits, it has been argued that consumption, engaging in the consuming of goods, services, and arguably information, which governs the way in which consumers within a society interact with other individuals in a community, the local economic and political firms, and the larger global community. Consumption has been described as a “means to an end” (Dunn 2008), which entails that the consumption of goods contributes to the formation of consumer identity and place in society (Dunn 2008).

Individual patterns of consumption ultimately define consumer personal understanding of their place in relation to others. Moreover, patterns of consumption have increasingly become measures by which individuals define their value in society. The ability to participate in consumer practices therefore becomes an important power in a society. 

Individuals are, arguably, bound by a broad sense of ethics rooted in basic understandings of social justice and human rights on both a local and global community level, to exercise this power to influence a greater good (Etzioni 2000). This responsibility to society and the challenges faced in upholding this responsibility can be seen as a moral dialogue in society (Etzioni 2000); whereby, discussions of what is ethical and acceptable consumption in society should be debated in order to foster a sustainable global consumer community. This idea of consumers being obligatorily bound to society forms the basis for current definitions of ethical consumerism.

As an introduction to the concept of ethical consumerism, it is helpful to consider the buying and selling of counterfeit goods. The demand for luxury goods inspires the manufacturing of counterfeit goods of similar styles but varying quality. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes recognizes the illegal counterfeit consumer goods market as a multibillion dollar global problem which can be tied not only to economic consequences for governments, but also as a major lucrative business for organized crime. International criminal organizations have used counterfeit markets to gain political and economic control over communities which have resulted in human rights violations in labor and ongoing issues of human trafficking and smuggling. However, these counterfeit products are hustled on the streets and sidewalks of major cities all over the globe, aimed at taking advantage of bargain hunters in search of luxury feel items at low prices (Szmigin 2006:606). So where is the link between the individual consumer and the larger global community? How far does the responsibility of the individual consumer stretch?

The effects of the counterfeit market on society can be examined within the concepts of ethical consumerism. Recent studies of ethical consumerism have examined the theory in terms of consumption and nonconsumption; whereby consumption can loosely be described as “I shop, therefore I am” and nonconsumption is the conscious individual choice made by the consumer to forego material or sometimes monetary gains in hopes of leading a more “moral” or “fulfilling” life (Szmigin 2006:608).

Is it then possible for ethical consumption to take place on a large community scale, beginning with the individual, propelled by societal desires for self improvement, and enforced by government agencies?  We can examine this idea of conscious “nonconsumption” or “downshifting” using the example of recycling. At an individual level, consumers may recycle packaging material from consumed goods in their homes, a community level example could be recycling in a workplace or school, and government enforced support of environmental protection efforts could include fines for not recycling or the banning of non-sustainable materials such as the anticipated ban single-use plastic bags in France (Todd 2014).

Arguably, this encouragement of nonconsumption could hurt the political economies. Discouraging capitalist ideals of consumer choice would seem to be contradictory towards western ideals of consumption patterns. This is the main reason choosing ethical consumerism, rather than nonconsumption, would seem to be a more desirable avenue towards social and environmental sustainability.

One of the main issues of constructing an ethical consumer is what has been referred to as the tyranny of choice (Shwartz 2004). This tyranny of choice is faced by consumers in a capitalist market who are confronted with several varying options for consumer goods, eg. several brands of the same product, variants of products intended for the same purpose, as well as ideas of what is actually necessary to consume for wellbeing. There is always something lost with every gain, this makes consumer choice far more complex as consumers are constantly analyzing benefits and disadvantages to purchases, consciously or subconsciously. However, it has been recognized that individual choice is “rarely based on simple rational decision with predictable outcome” (Salecl 2010). It has further been established that:

“consumption practices are rarely the practices of rational, autonomous, self-identified consumers, and so-called ethical consumption practices are rarely detached from organisations and their political activity” (Clarke 2008:1870).


It is therefore necessary to examine the various roles of the individual consumer. These roles progress through participatory consumerism, consumer citizenship, to the consumer-citizen hybrid.

Participatory consumerism is centered in the idea that individuals in a consumer society exhibit purchasing behavior because of indoctrination into the existing consumer market. This indoctrination into unsustainable consumption is mostly unintentional as consumption patterns are a reflection of societal values. Consequently, because individual consumers are unaware of the cause and effects of their buying habits, they perpetuate unsustainable purchasing and consumption (McGregor 2001:1). In her definition of participatory consumerism McGregor including the following components:

  1. public discourse - discussions among people about human citizenship issues, discussions shaped by listening, talking and acting such that the world changes for the better - expanded consumer dialogue
  2. people seeing themselves as citizens first and consumers second
  3. consumers seeing themselves related to a larger whole by taking part, sharing and contributing; that is, participating in their world as citizens who consume to meet basic needs
  4. people creating new knowledge drawn from deeper insights into their mind and their heart about why they are consuming - reflection
  5. equitable communities and societies that, for the time being, maintain a free market structure characterized by peace, social justice, security and freedom - eventually... strive for an economy of care - a moral economy
  6. a dynamic consumption process of action-reflection-revised action due to reflective participation in the global village in one’s consumption role
  7. people will gain a citizen consumer-conscience whereby they become more human citizens not just more efficient consumers
  8. includes: vulnerability, risk taking, uncertainty, trust, cooperation, public discourse, dialogue, openness with healthy suspicion, and patience with your’s and others’ impatience and fear” (McGregor 2001:2).


Participatory consumerism is most concerned with an individual and societal transformation in purchasing and consumption patterns to such a degree that it causes a shift in the underlying characteristics and values of consumerism within society (McGregor 2001:2). Since individual consumers are unaware of the causes and effects of their buying habits, participatory consumerism requires that individuals reflect deeply on their values in society, their role in society, the value they personally attribute to socially responsible consumer choices. The end goal of participatory consumerism, as described by McGregor, is to transform participation in consumer society, through examining the components listed above, in such a way that the transformation produces a culture of compassionate purchasing with regard to social and environmental sustainability and ethics (2001). 

The seventh component of McGregor’s Components of Participatory Consumerism - “people will gain a citizen consumer-conscience whereby they become more human citizens not just more efficient consumers (McGregor 2001:2),” gives rise to the issue of notions of citizenship. Citizenship, in this sense, refers to the belonging to a society of consumers, which not to be confused with political citizenship though it could be argued that citizenship in the global consumer culture could prompt individuals to identify as belonging to a global community, placing less emphasis on national allegiance. To exemplify this concept, it is helpful to consider the purchasing of goods made overseas of which the profits benefit social or environmental initiatives versus purchasing goods made in one’s home country as a sign of patriotism with little to no considerations of social or environmental impacts. Participatory citizenship involves a discourse amongst consumers about human rights, environmental concerns, and social justice (McGregor 2001:3). This echoes the sentiments of sociologist Etzioni (2000) on the importance of moral dialogues in forming good communities and societies. McGregor solidifies this relationship by recognizing:

“This consumer dialogue goes a long way towards augmenting the current narrow consumer dialogue about how to get the best buy and value for dollar spent and how to protect the rights of the domestic consumer (safety, information, choice, redress etc) while at the same time ensuring profit for the firm and an appropriate regulatory role for government; that is, how to balance consumer, business and public interests” (McGregor 2001:3).”


By integrating concepts of participatory consumerism and citizenship, a new concept of a “citizen-consumer” hybrid has emerged. The idea of citizenship in a consumer society can best be described by the practice of “voting with dollars,” as a way to participate in social change through consumption. Engrained in the concept of the citizen-consumer is the notion of consumer activism which further blurs the line between the previously separate citizen and consumer (Johnston 2008:229-230). 


In order for consumers to make informed decisions about their purchasing behaviors, it is paramount that information on consumer be goods be made readily available to consumers. While product packaging can be changed and adapted to attract customers, ethical consumerism requires more knowledge of environmental and social impacts of the production materials and method which may not be advertised on product packaging. It is for this reason, consumer advocacy plays an important role in moving towards a model of ethical consumerism. There are several examples of successes in consumer advocacy in the areas including, but not limited to, fairtrade, ethical investments, and works rights and safety. For example, consumer campaign groups such as the Burma Action group focused attention on human rights violations in Burma which forced several large companies such as Apple, Reebok, and Coca-Cola to pull out of Burma in response to the negative attention to less-than-ethical business practices. Subsequently, the United States saw a significant decline in the percent of clothing manufactured in Burma being imported. (Irving, Harrison, & Rayner, 2002:6). It is through this type of advocacy that individuals partake in participatory consumerism as citizen-consumers, where the effects of production of consumer goods violated ethical societal values and was not only rejected by consumers, but forced to change as a consequence of negative consumer reaction.


Consumers safety is protected by the fact that consumer goods are subjected to monitoring in production and distribution for safety and quality by various national and international organizations. In the United States:

“Federal law requires manufacturers and importers to test many consumer products for compliance with consumer product safety requirements. Based on passing test results, the manufacturer or importer must certify the consumer product as compliant with the applicable consumer product safety requirements in a written certificate that it must provide to retailers, distributors and, upon request, to the government” (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission).


It is the role of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (which also regulates consumer goods in international trade with the U.S.) to protect the public against injury and death as a result from consumer products. This safeguards the consumer against bodily harm; however, it does not protect against harm to the society or environment. It is for this reason that manufacturers of consumer goods implement their own regulation of products to ensure both social and environmental sustainability. This implementation of social and environmental responsibility within businesses has given rise to the idea of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) in which corporations, like individuals, hold a responsibility to society. 

CSR faces much criticisms as single-issue groups such as PETA and Greenpeace have created a stigma of CSR based on appeasing consumer issue groups (Irving, et al. 2002:16). Nevertheless, 

Businesses rely on communities for both employees and customers while communities rely on businesses for jobs, products, and services. For this reason it is important that one supports the other. Addressing how the social responsibility of a business should be defined, and, to what extent commercial businesses should be socially responsible is the main concern in the issue of corporate social responsibility (Scherer & Palazzo, 2007).

CSR is not a new concept. In the modern age of a continuously globalizing world, an increasing amount of scrutiny is being placed on the roles of businesses in society. A social commitment has increasingly become expected of companies as more people become concerned with the effects that big businesses have on their jobs, families, and communities. These criticisms are driven by an ever growing awareness of discriminatory or otherwise unethical business behavior which has been fueled by the convenience and instantaneous information sharing which builds on recent environmental and financial scandals involving large corporations. As the process of globalization continues to distort the lines of national borders with regards to economics; large multinational, international, and or global corporations are essentially gaining more power and resources to effect large scale change in communities than government programs (Scherer & Palazzo, 2007).

The concept of CSR has been advocated for decades and in 1953 was defined by Howard Bowen as “the obligations of businesses to pursue those policies to make those decisions or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society (Bowen, 1953)” (Smith, 2011). Since then, the definitions and practices of CSR have changed drastically as new management and ethics philosophies have been popularized. Smith examines how this gap between businesses and societies can be challenging for corporations who must focus on trending societal norms such as demand for strong CSR while simultaneously generating revenue.

  Smith examines CSR through the following definition: 

“corporate social responsibility is a business system that enables the production and distribution of wealth for the betterment of its stakeholders through the implementation and integration of ethical systems and sustainable management practices (2011).”

  The functions of CSR can vary greatly and present the opportunity for several different approaches which can be complex and even controversial. CSR has been theories into four groups: instrumental, political, integrative, and ethical theory.

  Instrumental theory refers to a situation in which the corporation serves only the purpose of revenue generation while societal involvement is only a means to achieve financial gains. This theory served as a null hypothesis in which the corporation and the community do not serve each other exclusively and in which the corporation employs CSR as it is beneficial to the agency.

  Political theory examines how the power of corporations can influence society and hold power in the political sector. This theory holds some bias since it places the responsibilities traditionally held by governments on to the duties of corporations.

  Integrative theory refers to the state in which the corporation is focused on fulfilling societal expectations. This theory is the main reference for hypothesizing that companies with strong CSR initiatives, in particular regards to environmental initiatives, enjoy more community support.

  The ethical theory which is based on the premise that corporations have ethical responsibilities to society may also be examined when regarding the hypothesis of the work. It is suggested that it is necessary to develop new theories about the relationship between society and business while integrating all four dimensions of profit, political influence, and societal demands and values (Garriga & Melé, 2004).

  As the theories of CSR and ethical debates over the topic have continued to evolve, so too has the avenue by which corporations interact with society. Corporate Social Initiatives (CSI) are the vehicles for corporate social responsibility and community involvement. The fundamental nature of CSI greatly differ from pre-existing community outreach or charitable campaigns in that the CSI are firmly connected and influenced by the corporation’s defined “core values, [responsiveness] to moral pressures, based on the firm’s core competencies, and [having] clear objectives of means and measurements (Hess,  Rogovsky, & Dunfee, 2002).” Firms have begun to adopt more CSI, as corporate philanthropy has moved from an external activity to an integral part of organizational identity. 

Many leading US and global firms are devoting increasing amounts of time and resources to support community involvement projects which range from locally focused initiatives such as educating youths in local communities, large national-scale campaigns such as food drives for hunger to global efforts in providing aid in developing nations. In response, new CSI are increasingly taking on more aspects of operations which are usually associated with corporate strategy rather than community involvement. Because of this integration of social responsibility within the core competencies of the organization and long-term corporate strategy, firms are increasingly “becoming key providers of aid to civil society” (Hess et al 2002). The historical context of CSR and CSI is discussed by examining the notion of “strategic philanthropy,” developed in 1980 by corporations, which was based on the idea that “competing on price and corporate citizenship is smarter than competing on price alone” (Hess et al 2002). Here, again, is echoed the idea of citizenship with regards to the larger economy. As individuals consumers may increasingly be considered citizen-consumers, so too may corporations be considered citizen-corporations in that the corporation belongs to society first, and focuses on profits second. 

One such example of a CSI specifically dedicated to environmental sustainability is the implementation of recycling and recyclable products and materials. The demand for goods made from recycled materials continues to grow as the world’s population moves towards a conscience effort to conserve natural resources and reduce the effects of waste on the environment. However, environmentally conscious CSIs have made slow progress in their efforts to increase recycling largely due to the issue of collection and processing of these recyclable materials which proves to be the most challenging components. One such example of a company which boasts an identity centered on strong CSR and is dedicated to environmental CSI is the corporate Starbucks Coffee Company. Starbucks not only boasts fair-trade coffee in ethical consumerism, but also recyclability of the cups, napkins, straws, and utensils in their stores. In 2008 Starbucks Coffee Company set a goal to implement store front recycling in all locations by 2015; by 2012 24% of the company’s stores in the United States and Canada had successfully implemented store front recycling (Starbucks). 

Many companies who value environmental stewardship and social responsibility as key elements of their business models face the same dilemmas as Starbucks. Most stores and restaurants in the United States are in shared locations such as shopping malls where the companies must pay to rent the space from a landlord who controls the waste and recycling collection for the location. In addition to having no control over waste and recycling, commercial recycling services are often not as comprehensive as residential services and are sometimes unavailable in the areas where these stores and restaurants are located. The last challenge faced by companies wishing to increase recycling efforts is the education of the employees as well as customers. Accidental disposal of a non-recyclable item into a recycling receptacle can render the entire bag unrecyclable and may be rejected and sent to waste disposal. For this reason, it is paramount that consumers be informed and educated on what is recyclable and what is not (Starbucks). 

The merits and validity of CSR as a vehicle for, and based in a commitment by an agency to, social change are still being debated. Though it has been determined that consumers will purchase sustainable or socially responsible products “only if ‘quality, performance, and price are equal’(Deloitte 2008)” (Cotte & Trudel, 2009:9), it has also been shown that consumers are more sensitive and less forgiving of negative CSR, or corporate social irresponsibility, than they are embracing of positive CSR. This can be attributed to the old adage “one bad apple.” If a company makes one error in ethics, it is viewed as being entirely unethical from the perspective of the individual, and sometimes large populations, of consumers (Cotte & Trudel, 2009:48). It is therefore in the best economic interest of companies to adopt strong positive CSR while the merits of socially responsible business conduct are an added benefit. 

Similar in interest to consumer advocacy groups is the formation of organizations which provide consumers with information on the most socially responsible companies and products. One such organization is the Ethical Company Organisation (ECO) based in the United Kingdom. The ECO is a self-sustaining company which is funded through the fees to the firm’s Ethical Accreditation Scheme, the sale of publications and research, and sale of advertisements in publications. The ECO’s efforts work towards demanding higher standards of business to benefit environmental sustainability and human and animal rights (Ethical Company Organisation). The firm has provided the public with an exhaustive and comprehensive comparative reports on ethical or unethical activities of several thousand companies. These reports, namely The Good Shopping Guide, list the levels of CSR adopted by companies as well as which companies have been involved in unethical business practice such as chemicals which harm the environment in production and the use of child labor (Ethical Company Organisation). Firms such as the ECO which advocate for positive CSR, consumer awareness and knowledge, and ethical consumerism incorporate the perviously discussed notions of citizenship of corporations as it relates to the citizen-consumer. 

It is through the knowledge and awareness of few individual consumers that consumer advocacy, CSR, and CSI have become widespread phenomenon. Moving towards a model of ethical consumerism therefore requires consumer education, an good intent by businesses and agencies to adopt positive CSR, and the ethical regulation and reporting of consumer products. Ethical consumerism therefore requires a shift in its reflection of societal values in that the social values instituted by society must move towards more socially and environmentally sustainable concepts.











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