Blogs & Comment

Being an ethical consumer is hard

Consumers face difficult choices today, sometimes among values that just don't add up.

(Photo: Chris MacDonald)

It’s not easy being an ethical consumer, these days—especially if you’re hoping to buy products that embody all or most of the ethical values you care about.

Here’s an example: If you like salmon, and you’re the sort of consumer who wants to eat ethically, should you buy organic or wild salmon? After all, there’s a huge effort these days to promote organic foods as ethical—gentler on the earth, and so on. Of course, others aren’t so sure that there’s much benefit to organic foods, and some even argue that the organic label is more a status symbol than anything else.

Now what about wild vs. farmed? Some people think farmed salmon is always bad. Others, like food-policy expert James McWilliams, argue that whatever its current flaws, farmed fish provides our best hope for a future that includes significant amounts of protein at acceptable environmental cost. Eating wild fish, on the other hand, puts pressure on fragile wild populations.

But still, there are plenty of people who are dedicated to eating organic, and plenty of people who are quite insistent about eating only wild fish.

The problem is, you can’t have it both ways. Wild salmon cannot, by definition, be organic, because it’s impossible to control what wild salmon eats. It can only be truly organic if it’s raised in captivity. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This is just one tiny example of the challenges of ethical consumerism. Any given product can embody any number of incommensurable values—values that can’t just be added up to arrive at a total “ethics quotient.” The same problem applies to wind power (which produces no air pollution but kills birds) and oil from Canada’s oil sands (which is produced in a democracy but is environmentally-dodgy).

Of course, none of that means that it’s not worth some effort to try to buy conscientiously. It just means that, as often as not, values-based consumerism is going to mean purchasing according to values that matter to you, rather than hoping to buy in a way that is ‘truly ethical,’ in some grander sense.