The Delusion of Conscious Consumerism
During the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our realities in ways that were unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost due to the virus, and potentially just as many have faced near economic ruin with job losses, evictions, and severely inadequate government support. Despite these unimaginably challenging times, we have unearthed societal illusions and reckoned with the fact that systemic racism rooted in white supremacy permeates all spheres of our lives, that economic inequality cannot be solved through individual entrepreneurship, and that market-driven approaches will be the nail in the coffin, not the key to solving the climate crisis. As more people awaken to these realities, it is only fitting that we begin to challenge the very principles that brought us to this place. One insidious principle rationality that has resulted in the development of conscious consumerism is neoliberalism and its economization of human existence.
As described by political theorist Wendy Brown in the book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution, neoliberalism can be defined as “a governing rationality through which everything is 'economized' and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm." Most historians recognize the shift towards neoliberal rationality during the eighties, in which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher lead the way for the rest of the world to deregulate the markets and defund public goods for the sake of so-called progress. However, other historians note the gradual shifts towards neoliberal political rationalities happening as soon as the end of World War II, arising in opposition to widespread fascism and control of the state. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, neoliberal ideologies have penetrated and marketized all spheres of our existence, including economic, political, and individual. Brown identifies both the overt and covert transitions that have included the dissemination of governance and benchmarking as the replacement of law, the deregulation, privatization, and reinterpretation of laws aimed at preserving political freedom and the outright assault on higher education institutions in the form of defunding and marketization. All of these things in conjunction with each other have hollowed out democracy as a form of civic engagement and government.
Two ideas that I want to focus on from Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism’s effect on democracy include the responsibilization of the citizen and the idea of shared sacrifice. As part of neoliberalism’s animosity towards centralized state power, this governing rationality puts the burden of once public problems onto the individual. This means that large-scale problems such as recessions, finance-capital crises, unemployment, or environmental problems are sent down the pipeline to be dealt with by the individual citizens that lack the technical, political, or financial resources to cope with them. So in this system, the individual is responsible for their own well-being, (without government support through funded public goods such as education or health care), as well as being responsible for the well-being of the overall economy and other massive issues plaguing our society. The second concept is the idea of shared sacrifice. During the transition of our governing political rationality to that of neoliberalism, the idea of what it means to be a citizen is reworked from participating in civic duties to that of the acceptance of shared sacrifice. Shared sacrifice may entail job losses, pay cuts, or losses of benefits, or it may entail the more sustained effects of foreclosure crises, currency deflation, or the real effects of the climate crisis. In this reality, the altered concept of citizenship requires accepting the burdens of decisions made for the broader “economy”, including austerity measures, rather than fighting for decisions that serve the needs of the individual, the family, community, or environment. Both of these concepts have resulted in the origin of what people call conscious or ethical consumerism.
Conscious or ethical consumerism can be defined as a market-driven approach to change and solve the problems facing society. According to Elizabeth L. Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, “ethical consumers are people who believe that we are slowly and inexorably driving business and society to be more responsible one purchase at a time.” These consumers believe they are inherently at fault for the state of the world because of their bad ethics through supply and demand, and thus they must pursue change by private means and shopping more responsibly. Rather than spending their dollars at big-box stores like Walmart or retail behemoths like Amazon, they should shop responsibly at small, local, organic (insert other adjectives associated with sustainability) stores to show that the demand is elsewhere. However, as Cline notes in a recent op-ed, “Ethical Consumption can ultimately serve as a type of delusion or fantasy where we tell ourselves that our economic actions are righteous and that we’re doing our small part to make a difference, even in the face of underwhelming evidence,” and has since challenged her faith in the ability of ethical consumption to make significant progress. She asks that even though she spent all those years abiding by the values of ethical consumption, what did it do to protect garment workers and their wages in light of COVID cancellations from massive fast fashion firms, or protect Black people from getting critically ill and dying in far higher percentages than white people during the pandemic, or protecting the planet from climate change or plastic pollution?
The idea of conscious or ethical consumption is also rooted in privilege that highlights the inequalities exacerbated by our economic system. Within the belief of ethical consumerism is the idea that buying certain things is morally correct, and buying other things is morally incorrect. Buying from smaller, more sustainable brands often entails spending more money, whereas purchasing from big-box stores or fast-fashion retailers offers the most affordable option. This notion of morality being tied to consumerism would mean that those who could not afford to purchase ethically would be immoral, when in fact there are decades of systemic barriers that might have precluded these individuals from being able to accumulate wealth in a way that could facilitate conscious consumption.
Rachel Carson testifying before Congress, 1963. Photographer Unkown.
Cline offers an alternative for ethical consumption that might provide an avenue to reinvigorate the currently hollowed-out form of our democracy - becoming consumer activists. She describes consumer activism as a successful social movement arising during the mid-twentieth century that aimed “to protect citizens from corrupt economic and government power as it intersected with the products they purchased.” She cites Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the subsequent galvanization of citizens around the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products as one of the seminal moments in the movement, resulting in actions like the ban of DDT and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Cline described consumer activists as exercising their citizenship by being an informed consumer which held governments and corporations accountable, ultimately changing society’s rules so the entire public benefited. She uses the example of single-use plastics to make her point: “rather than give up plastic to-go cups, Consumer Activists would work together to ban single-use plastics, investigate the plastic industry’s influence over the American government, and push our government to propose a low-carbon national policy that undercuts the plastic lobby’s clout.” This type of citizen engagement expands far beyond the realm of ethical consumerism and might just reinvigorate the currently hollowed-out form of democracy we see today. However, consumer activism does not directly solve the overarching plight of neoliberalism’s grasp on our economy, our government, and our society. To address this overwhelmingly vast and complicated dilemma, we must imagine and develop a viable and compelling alternative to the capitalist globalization that resulted in the quotidian neoliberal common sense. While this may seem daunting, and may even seem impossible, as Brown puts it, “apart from this work, what could afford the slightest hope for a just, sustainable, and habitable future?”
Brown, W. (2017). Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.
Cline, E. L. (2020, October 19). The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer. Retrieved February 6, 2021, from