Can we buy our way to an ethical society?



– For World Magazine X (Norway)

Today we live in the most narrowly market-driven society the world has ever seen. Social movements in many countries are at a low ebb, and people’s lives are utterly shaped by the norms of the commercial marketplace. This is especially true in North America, but its effects are increasingly felt in Europe as well. Advertising for consumer brands aims to reorient our personal aspirations and our fundamental sense of selfhood. We seem to live in a world where literally everything is for sale.

It is little surprise that, in such a world, people seek to express personal and political beliefs through decisions about what to buy. As we are made to feel utterly disempowered as citizens or community members, we logically gravitate toward “ethical shopping,” whether in the form of fair trade, “green” products, cruelty-free labeling, or other similar efforts to shape purchasing decisions along more ethical lines. While these various product labels may offer useful information—and can meaningfully distinguish safer or more ethically sound choices—it is still important to ask the larger question, “Can we buy our way to a better world?”

Ethical shopping has come a long way from Oxfam and others’ early efforts to channel the proceeds of craft sales toward the original producers. The coffee cooperative Equal Exchange got its start importing Nicaraguan coffee to the US in the 1980s, in open defiance of the Reagan administration’s prohibition on imports from the Sandinista regime. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream won accolades for purchasing rainforest nuts from indigenous producers in South America and paying them a fairer price—until supply problems led them back to the ordinary commercial supply chain. In 1990, as American environmentalists were preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Day, “green consumerism” emerged as the most tangible expression of the view that individual lifestyle choices, rather than corporate practices, are the primary cause of our environmental problems. Today, we can find “fair trade” coffee at Starbucks or even McDonald’s, buy organic cereals at WalMart, and even pay into a fund to offset the carbon emissions resulting from our air travel or excessive automobile use.

Several fair trade companies are trying hard to make a positive difference. Some work with communities in remote areas of the world to assure the ecological soundness of their production methods, and help organize worker cooperatives. For example Vermont-based ForesTrade imports coffee and spices from thousands of indigenous farmers in Indonesia and Guatemala, while working actively to encourage rainforest conservation, cooperative management and proper organic soil care. By assuring a fair price for quality organic and wildcrafted ingredients, they help people resist the pressure to destroy their environment and abandon traditional ways of life. They help balance the economic power of transnational timber interests by providing alternative, sustainable livelihoods from the intact rainforest.

But how sustainable is a livelihood that still ultimately depends upon the whims of an international market for luxury goods? What happens, for example, when the price of vanilla beans begins to fall rapidly due to a glut of synthetic vanillin on the world market? Or a particular type of coffee is no longer fashionable in New York, Seattle, Paris or Sydney? Can the capitalist market, the source of so much oppression and upheaval, the nexus of competition and social dislocation, ultimately bring relief from its own excesses?

Perhaps the most insidious new form of “green” capitalism is the rapidly growing market in carbon offsets. US pressure on countries negotiating the Kyoto Protocol led to the establishment of carbon trading and offsets as the primary economic instruments to forestall catastrophic climate changes. For market fundamentalists, these are the carrots that accompany their aggressive lobbying campaigns against public policies to mandate cleaner technologies. Today, affluent US and European consumers are increasingly encouraged to pay someone to plant trees or build greener power plants, in the hope of compensating for their own extravagant lifestyles.

Many US utilities now levy a voluntary surcharge on their customers for power purchased from renewable resources, including solar installations and wind turbines. A UK company called Climate Care has contracted with British Gas, British Airways, and many other companies to allow consumers to offset the climate consequences of their travel, gas, and electric use by supporting energy saving projects in the developing world. Several Native American tribes have even launched a US company that gives utility customers the opportunity to support biogas projects on various farms. On a global scale, countless numbers of often dubious projects are profiting from carbon credit schemes established under the Kyoto Protocol.

At worst, these practices help people to assuage the guilt from their high-consumption lifestyle while avoiding more serious measures to reduce their energy use. They contribute to activities that help the planet in small ways, while effectively cushioning public demands for more substantive changes in technology, working patterns and global economic structures. At best, they help individuals to do the right thing, but rely for their purported benefits on a vast, impersonal, and highly manipulable global market. By purchasing fair trade products or carbon offsets, we seek to accomplish in the wider world what we don’t seem to be able to do at home: to live an ethical life with a minimum of destructive environmental and social impacts. We seek a personal, albeit ephemeral connection to values we can no longer recognize in our own society. Whether we’re purchasing food or craft items from more traditional peoples or seeking to ameliorate the environmental effects of our own consumption, we hope these exchanges will keep us in touch with social values that we can no longer practice in our daily lives.

In an essay published in the 1980s, the late social ecologist and philosopher Murray Bookchin contrasted the “gray amorality” of our present market-dominated society with the embodied ethics of an older, more village- or neighborhood-centered world. That world was still palpable when Bookchin was growing up in New York in the 1930s, a world of close communities and extended families, where “older members formed living recollections of a more caring pre-industrial society.” Today, the market “has not only imperialized every aspect of conventional life, it has also dissolved the memory of the alternative lifeways that precede it.”

Bookchin’s essay, titled “Market Economy or Moral Economy?”, was originally presented to a convention of organic farmers and gardeners in New England nearly a quarter century ago. Bookchin warned that the increasing commodification of organic products — along with the managerial ethic that was overtaking the once-vital US food cooperative movement — was threatening to eviscerate the underlying moral and ethical character of organic farming. He proposed an alternative “moral economy” to the impersonal market economy that voraciously rechannels new social and economic experiments into its competitive and essentially antisocial realm. A moral economy, for Bookchin, would reclaim traditional values of mutual aid and complementarity within a “social ecosystem” that transcends mere economic exchange and models a more holistic vision of human community. Economic experiments and redesigned towns and neighborhoods would serve as a kind of school, helping renew and reshape the ethical character of individuals and their communities. They would help people educate themselves for a fuller kind of citizenship, one where social power emanates from the community, not from alienated choices between competing brand names in the supermarket.

Today, fair trade and its various offshoots fall far short of this promise. Further, any means of expressing our values merely through the marketplace evades the fundamental problem of who makes the decisions that shape our future. It can be quite gratifying to assist people in a distant, impoverished community, but their future may be tragically limited if we do not meaningfully reshape our own way of life and our society. We can try to make ethical choices, and spend our money where we can to help support those choices. But as long as corporations and financial speculators are able to move millions of dollars around the world instantaneously with virtually no constraints—and impede the structural changes needed to forestall an environmental catastrophe—our personal choices will have little lasting effect. When we try to “vote with our dollars,” we tend to forget that our dollars pale to insignificance compared to the brute economic power of the IMF’s, Exxons and WalMarts of this world. Their power is only surmountable when we refuse to limit our role to that of consumers, assert our political power as citizens and community members, and begin to alter the often-hidden structures of global economic power.

For Bookchin, “a market economy and a moral economy raise fundamentally opposed notions of humanity’s self-realization and sense of purpose.” While we try to make personal economic decisions as ethically as possible, it is crucial that we participate actively in the renewal of our communities, and also participate in broader social movements seeking a more thorough transformation of global institutions.

Brian Tokar directs the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology ( based in Plainfield, Vermont, USA, and is well known as a critic of the global biotech industry. His books include Earth for Sale (Boston: South End Press, 1997) and Redesigning Life? (London: Zed Books, 2001).