#005 Consumer Choice & Ethics

Can Spending Decisions Really Affect the Greater Good?

Progressive Primers
2 min readJan 2, 2014


The primary reasons companies pursue ‘unethical’ activities, is to obtain competitive advantages, to reduce costs and to increase their profits and market share. This means ‘unethical’ companies will always prevail over rival companies that choose not to follow suit, meaning (un)ethical compromises are effectively and inevitably the norm, for the most successful businesses and the market economy as a whole, which in turn implies that we cannot eradicate morally questionable activities from the world simply by buying and/or investing in goods & services that claim to offer an ethical alternative, such as fair trade bananas or co-operative banking.

However making more ethical choices in our consumption and investment habits may still be worthwhile in that we may help to stem the tide of the less ethical businesses thriving and the (more) ethical businesses failing, thus helping to keep (more) ethical alternatives around as options in the market place. This may be beneficial because these businesses do at least represent attempts within the current paradigm to prioritise moral standards to some extent.

So although my preferred system would be a system free of value production, money, markets, commodities and the wage labour system, a market totality with a larger number of (more) ethical alternatives, is surely preferable to a capitalist totality, dominated by fewer, more powerful and (more) morally questionable companies, both from a personal and an ethical point of view. Therefore the consumer and investment choices we make can still have value in that they help sustain companies which support ethical justice, to a greater extent, over the long term.

The problem arrises when the consumer is faced with the choice to either buy something from a less ethical company at a cheaper cost, or pay more for a higher standard of ethics embodied within their good or service. Similarly, when an investor stands to make more money for investing in something less ethical, the individual or organisation is torn between ethics and financial interests. For instance, the UK’s largest charity, Comic Relief, happily invested a large portion of its donations into arms & tobacco, despite the obvious contradictions, up until the BBC’s panorama programme blew the whistle and forced it to rethink its actions (for the sake of public relations).

Whereas we cannot really draw definitive judgements on an individual’s or an organisation’s ethics from their consumption & investment choices, as they are limited by their spending power and the requisite under market capitalism to maximise ‘value for money’, regardless of ethics, we can highlight many of the questionable activities of business, and encourage them to raise their moral standards, or lose trade and/or investment to rival companies employing higher ethical standards, and in return obtain more of our money.