Sustainability and Consumer Ethics
Institutional Communication Service
When shopping in a supermarket, how often do we ask ourselves: where did this product come from? Who is the producer? Under what social conditions was it made? What consequences does it have on local populations' economy and living conditions? A critical attitude towards what we buy is a first step towards the so-called sustainable consumption that positively affects the environment around us. With the help of Léna Pellandini-Simányi, professor at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, we explore the meaning of responsible consumption and its aspects.
What is ethical consumption? How can we become informed and conscious consumers?
Ethical consumption means consuming according to political, religious, spiritual, environmental, social or other principles, rather than purely personal interest. For example, avoiding buying goods that harm the environment or that are produced by companies that exploit workers or use their profits to support authoritarian governments. People are also engaged in ethical consumption when they buy local products to support the local community or abstain from certain types of meat for religious reasons. Consumption consists of buying, using, and disposing of goods, and an ethical approach can be applied to all three stages.
For those new to ethical consumption, the best way to gather information and understand their choices' environmental impact is to use a carbon footprint calculator, for example, from www.footprintcalculator.org or www.footprint.wwf.org.uk. These sites provide straightforward, easy-to-understand tips on becoming a more conscious consumer. For those already familiar with the topic, the Ethical Consumer organisation (www.ethicalconsumer.org) provides guidelines on becoming an ethical consumer, including details on each product category and principle. For example, the site suggests the best brand if someone wants to purchase chocolate with the least environmental impact or from a company that respects workers' rights. Depending on the country, one can also use an ethical shopper app for help choosing the most responsible product while shopping.
What are the main challenges for consumers who want to make sustainable choices?
There are three main challenges. The first is that ethical consumer choices often clash with everyday ethics. For example, the most environmentally friendly choice would be not to buy anything for Christmas, but this clashes with the values associated with being a good parent and the religious values of the holiday. Second, many ethical consumption choices face financial barriers: some are expensive or require a more significant initial investment, such as buying a Tesla or replacing the insulation system in the house. Finally, most ethical consumption faces an infrastructure barrier. For example, you may want to commute by bike or public transit, but you cannot if there are no bike lanes and buses run every two hours. You have to use your car.
However, the most significant limitation of ethical consumption is that the leading causes of environmental damage are beyond the scope of individual actions: they depend on waste production and management processes and large infrastructures, which are not influenced by consumer choices.
What impact does critical consumption have on the production of goods and services?
The idea behind ethical consumption is that every single action has a small impact. However, the fact that a large number of small actions may have a significant impact is true to a certain extent. It is naive to think that ethical consumption alone will save the world. The most significant impact of ethical consumption is not direct but indirect: it sends a signal to companies and governments that consumers and voters care about the environment, working conditions, and democratic values. Suppose companies see that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious. In that case, they might invest in green production lines, for example, electric vehicles. More importantly, if governments see that people care about the environment and are willing to make financial sacrifices for it, they are more likely to introduce laws and regulations that force companies to produce in a more environmentally responsible way.
If you had to suggest some simple actions that ethical consumers should take, what would they be?
1. Reduce meat consumption (once a week or less).
2. Lower the heating temperature by two degrees during the winter, and raise the temperature by two degrees in the summer if you have an air conditioner
3. Switch to public transportation or biking whenever you can and avoid taking planes.
4. When choosing an apartment or house, ask the seller/landlord about emissions. Then, choose one with zero emissions.
5. Make your voice heard. Vote. Participate in pro-environment rallies, sign petitions, use social media to let companies and politicians know you care.
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