I attended a workshop recently where the idea of consumerism was discussed, and more importantly, how we may move beyond it. It became very apparent – as it often does whenever I witness the issue being raised – that two schools of thought tend to emerge. The first is that ethical consumerism is moving us in the right direction, while the second is that ethical consumerism is an oxymoron. Disclaimer: I was arguing for the latter at that event.

As tension rose in the room I asked myself, could ethical consumerism be the first step to moving us away from consumerism? What is it about ethical consumerism that gives hope to its proponents?

For one, we are seeing a rise in ethical consumption – i.e. shopping with consideration to the socio-environmental impacts of our purchases. This gives the illusion of a rise in concern for socio-environmental issues. My argument would be that these concerns have always been there but we now have, at least for a segment of the population, more options available (and visible) that are aligned with what citizens care about. This is to be celebrated for sure but it then takes us into the rabbit hole of affordability. Is it fair that a system only allows us to express our values if we have enough money? Surely not.

Putting our values aside, what about consumerism itself – whether ethical or not? With consumerism comes the belief that we will solve society’s problem through consuming. However, it is the very act of consumption that is the root cause of many (if not most) of the socio-environmental impacts around the world today. Our over-consumption, paired with an increasing global population, serves to accelerate the extraction of our finite planetary resources and exacerbates the pollution of what is left.

Is it fair that a system only allows us to express our values if we have enough money? Surely not.

So while ethical consumerism is paving the way to certain values taking centre-stage, it still lives within the belief that we can buy our way out of this mess. To me this runs the risk of turning ethical shopping into a trend – with new products and markets – whose propensity is based on growth and domination. We need to consume less, not more. For instance, I find it contradictory that minimalism is now all the rage, with its whole new market of “things” that you can have more of so you can promote having less.

Ethical consumerism may be a platform to voice values but it is a limited one that doesn’t seek to address where agency, or the ability to shape our society, comes from. Agency within a framework of consumerism excludes those without financial means. A pertinent comment at the workshop was that consumerism is a “space we can only buy ourselves into.” As free spaces disappear, our agency to create and shape society outside of financial markets disappear, mirroring a trend where “democracy” is only available to those who meet a set of criteria.

…while ethical consumerism is paving the way to certain values taking centre-stage, it still lives within the belief that we can buy our way out of this mess.

I see two interventions as necessary: the first is to buy LESS, challenging current business and economic models. The second is to increase the spaces and platforms where people can shape society, outside a financial transaction. And crucially, since food is a basic human need many can’t even access, to build agency that allows us to shape our food systems beyond the point of purchase.

We call it Food Citizenship.

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