In thinking about all of last week’s Christmas presents, I realized that most of them probably wouldn’t qualify as being up to snuff when it comes to ethical consumerism. Many were no doubt manufactured in countries with subpar labor standards, or were purchased at big-box retailers or huge department stores that don’t give back to their local communities, or are not organic or fair trade, etc.
This points to the fact that when it comes to many types of popular gift items, ethical concerns are just not on many people’s radar—even people who share the values espoused on this blog.
I think that’s because it takes a long time for humans to internalize such issues. Time, and repeated exposure to succinct messages. Remember the “Give a Hoot! Don't Pollute” campaign?
Interestingly, that internalization process has happened in a big way with one large product category: food. But think about it. We’ve had years of exposure to various food labels. In the U.S., the law mandating the Nutrition Facts chart was passed in 1990. A variety of certification logos—mostly for organics but also for standards like Dolphin Safe—have been stamped onto edible products for years and are now ubiquitous. Then there are farmers’ markets and restaurant trends emphasizing seasonal ingredients and sustainable practices.
Of course, one reason for the widespread lack of consideration of the responsibility (or irresponsibility) of non-food products is the fact that third-party certifications simply don’t exist for most of those items like they do for comestibles. That said, there are still plenty ways to align your ethics with your purchasing, many of which I’ve discussed on this site (check out the “Shopping with a Conscience” category, or the research resources on my Tools for Consumers list). But they’re not all available to everyone, and they’re not mainstream. Yet.
Call it new year’s optimism, but I have a feeling that consciousness around these issues isn’t going to take as long to penetrate consensus reality as the environmentally friendly food movement did. In fact, I think the momentum created by that movement has produced the conditions for a tipping point in consumer attitudes about all the other stuff we buy. Time will tell...