Challenges, Consumption, Goals, Money, Reflection

“Ethical Consumerism” and other lies

My relationship to the myth of ethical consumption.

One of my 2017 goals is to make less waste, partly because I’m in the midst of an enduring ethical dilemma about consumption. In economics, we talk a lot about externalities, the positive or negative impacts of production that aren’t taken into account when we think about the cost of a good or a service. Positive externalities don’t inspire the same kind of moral crisis in which I find myself, so let’s talk negative externalities.

When you, for example, call a taxi or take an Uber, the price of the ride reflects the wage of the driver, the price of gas, maybe even how  much it costs to rent the vehicle, whatever the business has built into the price you pay. The selling price of your particular Uber trip represents the cost of doing business, plus a markup.

Negative externalities are not included in that price – the charge for the trip doesn’t include things like the cost of the pollution produced by the car, the damage to air, water, or road quality (unless you pay for the tolls, but stick with me here) or the extra time that one additional car on the road adds to everyone’s commute, and the lost productivity as a result of that extra time.

Basically, things aren’t cheap because they are actually cheap to produce, things are cheap because we ignore the actual costs to the people and environmental resources used to produce those things.

Things get even cheaper when we decide to exert downward pressure on the the cost of production. That’s a fancy way of saying that we cut the wages of the workers who make the goods, and/or use cheaper, lower quality raw materials, in order to sell the good at a cheap price while still making a profit.

I’m very, very firmly on team, “Consumerism is unethical and must be dismantled” but let me try and walk it back so you can see how I got here.

Three pieces of media were hugely influential in arriving at this point.

First, I watched Andrew Morgan‘s devastating documentary, “The True Cost.” This should have been enough to justify this personal revolution, but as I’m a glutton for information and apparently punishment, I also read Lucy Siegle‘s “To Die For,” and Elizabeth Cline’s “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.”

I highly recommend both books, Cline’s was especially engaging. I literally read it while walking down the street because I could not bear to stop.

The bottom line of these, and other, fantastic sources of information about the fashion industry is that there is an exceptionally high human and environmental cost to the cheap clothing produced by the fast fashion cycle.

Sweatshops, where companies pay workers next to nothing to labor in hazardous health conditions, are the norm. People die in the pursuit of better living conditions every year, but companies claim no responsibility as they ‘simply’ contract with these factories.The environmental pollution caused by pesticides in farming lead to cancers, birth defects, and the visible poisoning of the earth in places from Texas to India and back again. Genetically modified cotton is destroying both the lives of Indian farmers and their land.

My clothing consumption has already slowed considerably in France (hi grad student budget), but this has completely, utterly ground it to a halt.

Our economic system functions very, very simply on the laws of supply and demand. If people want to buy something, someone, somewhere, will try to make it. There are certainly barriers like limited technology or access to raw materials, but generally, if you demand it, they will supply it.

I recently recommended The True Cost to my sister, and as I’ve been thinking more and more about what to do as I prepare to buy work clothes. As I work to become a consumer with more than the odd hundred Euro in her pocket, I feel a moral obligation to shift as much of my consumption as humanly possible.

I’m pausing for a moment to feel the irony and hypocrisy of writing about my goals for ethical consumption while also wearing a pair of Zara jeggings, but I am not going to let past unethical choices dictate the future of my spending. We all have to start somewhere, and now is the time.

I’m integrating consumption into my blog as an overarching theme, and I have at least two posts coming over the next two weeks about the core values of ethical consumption, the economic and psychological issues behind consumerism, and some of the practical wisdom from my mother that I use to make better choices.

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