How can you buy ethically with no purchasing power?

We live in a world where labourers are subjected to terrible exploitation. On US soil, workers toil in the fields for hours, many undocumented and unable to defend themselves from wage theft and other breaches of their rights. Other workers stand on the line at slaughterhouses, sew in sweatshops in garment districts, endure terrible conditions as cleaners and assembly line workers for companies interested in cheap, disposable labour. When it comes to products overseas, working conditions vary considerably — there are the Rana Plazas and other crowded firetraps where people make clothing, electronics, and other consumer goods, the horrific Amazon warehouses in Germany, and then there are the small workshops with workers who care passionately about what they do and are compensated well for it.

As consumers, we often feel an imperative to buy ethically, to select consumer goods made by people who weren’t exploited on the production line. We also have a desire to do so — to be able to eat knowing that the people who picked our fruit weren’t suffering, to dress without feeling the fingers of child labourers running along our sleeves. But many of us struggle to do so, because despite the fact that consumers are theoretically in a position of power to dictate how companies treat their workers, many lack the purchasing power to vote with their wallets in a meaningful way.

Setting aside larger discussions about consumerism and how many products people ‘really need,’ people most definitely need things like food, clothing, toiletries, medications, cleaning supplies, sheets and towels, dishes, and other basic household goods. The range of goods available depends in part upon where people live, with some communities not even offering ethical buying options. It also depends, though, on what people can afford, because goods produced ethically tend to cost more — and we are assuming, for the sake of argument, that goods which purport to be ethical really are ethical. This isn’t necessarily a given, since companies can make all sorts of claims about their products but they don’t necessarily have to back them up, and third-party certification isn’t a guarantee unless you can be assured that the auditing process is effective and comprehensive.

People in a position of need have to buy something: A menstruating person requires some sort of means to deal with hygiene necessities, for example, as few people choose to (or can) free bleed. Some communities might offer only disposable pads and tampons manufactured by large, generic brands, with no information about the working conditions or environmental impacts involved. Others might have a range of products, including reusables and products produced ethically, but these might be out of reach of our hypothetical consumer for financial reasons. Faced with using a product they know or suspect to be unethical or being unable to work or move around the home comfortable, our consumer has to choose Unethical Brand Pads, even if it causes profound discomfort.

Conversations about purchasing power with respect to ethical shopping decisions have been bubbling in the background for a while, but they need to be more proactively addressed. The simple fact is that not everyone can afford to make buying decisions predicated solely on the ethical provenance of a garment, a head of lettuce, a set of towels. It would be nice if this was the case, but some people have more purchasing power than others. Those who do should definitely be leveraging it to their advantage to demonstrate a market for ethical products and hopefully in so doing lower their prices by making them practical for companies to make in larger volumes. But those who do not are left in a terrible bind.

Owning and using products made and handled in terrible conditions feels slimy. Yet, it’s what the market has effectively forced many people into doing, because the alternative is not accessing these products at all — and while one might argue that this is a reasonable option for things that aren’t necessities, it’s not a choice when you’re looking at things like affordable food for your family or critically-needed hygiene items. Moralistic scolding of people who buy ‘cheap junk made in [fill in your country]’ doesn’t actually address the problem that this is a market that’s created the consumer, not a consumer that’s created the market — wages in the US remain stagnant despite advocacy on the issue, cost of living is rising, and many people can’t make the choices they would prefer to make, because they’re facing down very limited options. This is deliberate, as companies have substantial margins of profit on inexpensively-produced goods made in nations with lax labour laws and poor environmental standards.

Many consumers would likely prefer to select other products, given the ability to do so, but they can’t. That’s a deliberate market force and a horrible consequence of allowing the free market to dictate the consumer landscape. Companies with a focus on behaving ethically can’t compete with counterparts who don’t have that concern, and they know it — it’s just plain harder for them to control costs. Because their goods are more expensive, they’re shut out of a chunk of the consumer market, and consequently, they need to charge more to make their businesses viable, which in turn shuts out even more consumers in a bitter, vicious cycle.

It’s easy to moralise about how everyone should buy ethically or ‘scrimp’ if they’re having trouble, but it’s not that simple. Many consumers who wish they had that kind of purchasing power experience guilt over the people who are abused to make the products they buy, but they don’t have alternatives, and it’s these alternatives that we need to be building up, rather than shaming people who cannot afford to buy into more ethical systems.

Image: Thrift Store Sign, S Jones, Flickr