The Limits of Ethical Consumption

Anne McCaig, CEO of Cafedirect, said in an interview by the Guardian that ethical consumption has its limits. “At the end of the day, ethical consumption can only drive so much,” McCaig said. “Businesses are good at picking the low-hanging fruit, like energy efficiency: anything that cuts costs. But the Government has to put the resources and infrastructure in place to make it easy for people to do the right thing – setting carbon prices, for example.”

George Monbiot stated something similar last year in his column for the Guardian. There are several problems, Monbiot wrote, with the idea that “we can change the world by changing our buying habits.” One of the problems he mentioned is how “seldom effective” changing consumption habits are “unless it is backed up by government action.” He added that “our power comes from acting as citizens, demand political change, not acting as consumers.”

However, Monbiot made it clear he is not against ethical consumption. “Fairtrade products make a real difference to the lives of the producers who sell them.” He added that “these small decisions allow us to believe that our overall performance is better than it really is.”

In the U.S., the limits of ethical consumption are driven home by the fact that the U.S. lags behind China and Europe in investing in clean energy. During the third quarter of 2010, China’s investments topped $13.5 billion, Europe’s $8.4 billion, while the U.S. only reached $4.4 billion. The U.S., unlike Europe, has yet to put a price on carbon. Although China has not yet put a price on carbon, the country is putting large investments in clean technology.

Last week the world’s largest global investors, 259 in total, released a statement calling for governments to enact national and international policies that will help private investment in clean tech. The investors have collective assets over $15 trillion.

“Private investment will only flow at the scale and pace necessary if it is supported by clear, credible, and long-term policy frameworks that shift the risk-reward balance in favor of less carbon-intensive investment,” the statement stated.

“Current investment levels fall well short of what is needed to stem the rise of global temperatures and adapt to a warming world,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres and director of the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “Strong government policies that reward clean technologies and discourage dirty technologies are essential for closing the climate investment gap and building a low-carbon global economy.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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