Is Ethical Consumerism Just a Pipe Dream?

Switching to more sustainable products is one thing, but what do we collectively need to do in order to make ethical consumerism a reality?

If your house is anything like mine, three and a half weeks after Christmas there’s still a sizable pile of presents you haven’t found a permanent home for. Between new clothes, electronics, toys, books and other thoughtful gifts, there’s an overwhelming feeling that you might need a bigger house…

I am not ungrateful in the slightest, far from it. Every year I’m blown away by the generosity of friends and family, especially when it comes to my children, but I’m not the only one who thinks we, as a species, are collecting too many things. And despite our best intentions, many items we own end up only being used a handful of times before they are replaced.

If you read ‘The Christmas Pig’ over the festive season (I highly recommend it), you may have recognised that, interwoven with the themes of love and friendship, is an allegorical look at a consumerist society and our relationship with the ‘Things’ we own. However, it’s in this relationship that we can build something much more sustainable. 

What is Ethical Consumerism?

If you’ve never come across the term before, Ethical Consumerism is making a conscious decision to buy goods that are produced in a way that minimises negative impacts on the environment and society. It can also be considered an extension of the idea that we, as a consumer, pay for not only the end product, but the whole process from raw materials to delivery to our door.

Ethical Consumerism is to the individual (or collective), as Ethical Sourcing is to procurement. Fortunately, as both individuals and procurement professionals, we stand in a unique position to move the ethical and sustainable agendas along. But first we must revisit our relationship with ‘things’ in order to understand what sustainable and ethical products really look like.

Sustainability of Product Lifecycles

As stated previously, it’s not just a case of calling a product sustainable, or more environmentally friendly than something else. No matter the product, there is likely to be an impact, be it environmental, sustainable or ethical, somewhere in the supply chain. That’s not to say that it’s a major negative, but there will be an impact.

Take bamboo for example. An increasing number of products are being made from bamboo – everything from clothes and flooring, to toothbrushes and even toilet paper. Bamboo is a more sustainable resource than cotton or even wood, but it’s not without its issues. Increased demand makes it a profitable crop to plant, rather than only using the naturally occurring plants. In some cases, this leads to deforestation and monocultures in countries in which it is grown. 

And while it’s better for the environment than single-use plastic, there are still product safety concerns due to the melamine-formaldehyde resin used as a binding agent in some of them. And that’s on top of the environmental impact of transporting the bamboo or bamboo products from source countries (most commonly China and East Asia) to end users all over the world. 

The same logic applies to electric cars. They are most certainly better for the environment than fully diesel or petrol cars, but there’s no getting around environmental and ethical concerns regarding the supply chain for raw materials, such as cobalt and lithium. How electricity for charging the vehicles is generated also needs to be considered. For example, in 2020 the UK generated less than half of its energy from renewable sources, with a majority coming from power stations supplied by natural gas. 

So there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to the full lifecycle of some products.

Extending the Lifecycle – Helping Sustainability?

With all of this in mind, how do we as individuals (and as procurement professionals) move the needle to extend product lifecycles? In the world of technology, some big organisations are already making changes to extend the life of their products and reduce the volume of electronics we buy every year. Of course, there’s an added bonus of holding on to you as a customer for longer too, but this is business! 

Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Amazon are all starting to manufacture products using recycled materials, improving their software support over a longer period, as well as providing recycling solutions for old tech. If you’re more confident with your phone or laptop, then organisations are also offering parts and tools for device repairs that you can carry out yourself. 

These ideas are applicable across all industries, understanding that most products can be repaired or recycled in a way that reduces their impact on the natural world. So if this helps to reduce consumption and demand and recycling helps to reduce waste, how do we get from there to Ethical Consumerism? 

Vote with your Cash

Well this is linked back to the idea that we pay for the whole supply chain when purchasing a product, and the concept of ‘dollar voting’. This idea links to where and how we choose to spend our money and if we choose to buy products that are more sustainable, more ethical and from organisations with transparent supply chains, free from ethical concerns like Modern Slavery, and local to the end location.

The more we spend with these organisations, the more money can be invested in both new ethical and sustainable products and the people and processes that make up the supply chain. We essentially vote with our money (or our feet) and elect to stop spending money with unethical organisations, or on cheap, disposable and fundamentally unsustainable products. 

The same is true for procurement, though on a greater scale, where professionals can leverage their influence and position to bring more local, or ethical, or sustainable suppliers on board. Reducing consumption is one thing, but there will always be the demand and money to spend. We just need to choose wisely where to spend it.