Most Ethically-Significant Consumer Decision?

OK, this is one where I pose a question.

What is the most ethically-significant purchasing decision a consumer can make?

Most consumer choices make very little difference in the world, taken on a purchase-by-purchase decision. In the aggregate, of course, consumer decisions are enormously important. But I’m thinking today about individual decisions.

Take the decision to buy a low-energy lightbulbs for your house. The net impact on the environment will be roughly zero. Same goes for, e.g., not eating certain kinds of tuna that are on the verge of being listed as endangered. Whether you buy tuna or not really isn’t going to make any difference to the fate of the species.

On the other hand, if you decide not to buy meat this week, the net impact is that a bunch of critters get to live (and if you think animals matter, ethically, then that’s a good thing). Of course, even that is questionable, because in most cases it’s not as if those animals were going to be killed just for you. If you don’t eat them, they’re still going to be killed, and it’s only long-term trends in consumer demand that will make a difference.

Another kind of example might include the decision to purchase, for example, a piece of art from a homeless person. In that case, a single purchase (say, for $20) might make the difference between that person eating and not eating for a couple of days — something clearly ethically significant. But those kinds of opportunities are relatively rare.

So what are the best examples of purchase decisions that individual consumers can make that will have a real, concrete impact on the world?

9 comments so far

  1. Wil Price on

    Giving directly to effective charities is obviously ethical (giving $25/month to the Fred Hollows foundation would save a person’s sight every month – but I guess that is not really a ‘purchase’.

    It may be that this is a false premise anyway, and that the best ethical decisions we make are the small, long term decisions because they do have a bigger impact eventually.

    Big purchases tend to be constrained by the market (is there an ‘ethical’ car purchase or house purchase?), but smaller purchases that are available such as ethically produced t-shirts don’t make a big immediate difference, but do nevertheless make a difference in people’s lives.

    My personal biggest purchase that makes a difference is ethically produced t-shirts and shoes – but I think I am making more of a differenc with the much larger gifts to charities.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      You’re right that it may not be true that the best ethical decisions are the big, direct ones. But those are the ones I’m curious about today. I suspect many people at least believe their consumption choices have direct impact; I’m curious to hear people’s opinions about which purchasing decisions are most likely to make that belief a reality.


  2. Bruce Philp on

    Consumption is inevitable. Too much debate around this issue centers on whether, rather than how we should consume. So thanks for raising the question in the way you have.

    I think our best hope lies in making two commitments to ourselves: Setting aside the social badges of choice making, and considering our choices in the context of the systems in which they occur. It’s amazing how this changes things. It’s amazing how you begin to realize that a high quality item that will outlast its cheaper alternatives by orders of magnitude is more ethical simply because fewer replacements will have to be built for it over time. Or how the hybrid in your driveway that makes you look like a green hero actually raped the planet on three continents before it got there, while the car you traded for it is still out there on the road, not producing a jot less CO2 than when it was yours. Or how that subdivision that’s blighting your view might not have been built had we been willing to pay something closer to the true cost of growing an apple. Or how your weird neighbour who goes deer hunting every year has a freezer full of the most ethical meat imaginable, while the tidy packaged sirloins in yours are mute testament to the moral and environmental conundrum of feedlot farming.

    The ethical consumer will, I think, eventually prove to be the person who simply bought less and bought better, who took care of what they had so that it would last, who made a decision to opt out of consuming as a form of social competition and to accept their connectedness to the world. Their impact will be accretive and slow, but it will be greater and longer lasting than most of the more symbolic choices we’re offered on a typical trip to the mall.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I agree with most of that — except for the part about buying less. I’m pretty convinced by Joe Heath & Andrew Potter (Rebel Sell/Nation of Rebels) that buying less is virtually impossible. Unless you literally burn your money, all you can do is delay purchases or transfer purchasing power to someone else. Every dollar you earn is going to buy something, for someone, eventually.


      • Bruce Philp on

        True enough. But remember that “buy less” doesn’t mean the same thing as “spend less.” I have this belief that spending the same kind of money on fewer, better things is a potential way forward for ethical consumerism that doesn’t involve abdicating our purchasing power or our influence over the system. How we spend becomes, de facto, the conscience of the marketplace. Ethical consumerism becomes a question of what kind of corporate behaviour we’re going to reward, since it’s the making of things rather than simply commerce that does the damage. Not being an economist, I can’t follow that logic all the way to its ultimate effect. But as a marketer, I can tell you that this kind of consumer would be a game changer.

  3. Saul Brown on

    Buying a share in a car sharing service. Sharing cars means less demand for personal automobiles. In Vancouver it’s easy to live comfortably without your own car. It’s a decision that creates and influences culture. I still have use of cars when I need them both personally and as a business but when they’re sitting idle are available for others to use. That’s less embedded engery tied up in personal automobiles while preserving the utility of transportation for the masses.

    What about buying a bike instead of a car? That’s less demand for cars and fuel while still being able to get around the city.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I think both of those suggestions are good, especially (or maybe only) if you focus on the part about how such a choice “creates and influences culture.” Because in terms of individual decisions, again the impact (even of going from car to bike) is trivial. But if — and it’s a big if, frankly — it influences other people, then I guess the impact would be bigger.


  4. jilly on

    I think it is unwise to call individual choices made consciously and on the basis of ethical views “trivial” or “negligible.” These are very disempowering words. It is true that the impact of individual choices may be small, but individual choices are what we have, and the basic rule is always “I can do something or I can do nothing.” Choosing to do something is not always the best option, but recognizing that by doing nothing we are making a real choice is important, in my view.

    That said, I think the question is a bit misleading. The person who chooses not to drive will likely make other choices based on conscientious (and conscious) considerations as well. They may choose to forgo some spending on luxuries so that others may have necessities; they may choose to cultivate a taste for foods that are less dependent on cruelty (to animals, to producers and to the environment); they may choose to enjoy what they have that works well, rather than replace it with something else that may not work as well in the long run.

    So, in my view, the most ethical consumer choices we can make are those that involve conscious decisions that take factors beyond our own convenience or gratification into account. By the way, I recognize that only some of us have the good fortune to be rich enough to do that; for others, choices are limited to what is available and what is cheap. Therefore, in an ideal world, ethical consumer choices would also involve at least two other kinds of action: advocacy to change the rules to make it easier to “do the right thing” (recycling programs are a real victory of this kind), and communication to explain to companies why you do not use their products, and, significantly, what they can do to change to make their products attractive to you.

    Interesting question–it certainly promotes thought!


    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Just to be clear, I didn’t call such choices either “trivial” or “negligible,” though I did (in the comment just above yours) use the former word to refer to the impact of such choices.

      My intention is not to denigrate any particular decision (or type of decision) or even to say that individual decisions are the right thing to focus on. But I am curious to know whether there are individual choices that, in and of themselves, matter ethically. If we’re to take the notion of consumer empowerment seriously, we need to understand, I think, which kinds of consumer decisions really matter. The fact that it’s so difficult to find instances in which individual purchases make much difference points in just the direction you suggest: that we need mechanisms for marshalling individual purchases into patterns of purchasing — patterns in our own purchasing, and social patterns as well.


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