This is a guest post by Cennydd Bowles, a London-based designer and futurist focusing on the ethics of emerging technology. His second book, Future Ethics, was published in 2018.
On first glance, living as an ethical consumer looks to be getting easier. The market for more virtuous, sustainable products is growing deeper and sprouting into new sectors. The food industry has long led the way – free range meats, and fair trade produce, for example – and today’s burgeoning vegan industry shows that consumers’ ethical demands can sometimes be properly served. As an erstwhile employee of the energy industry, I’m relieved that green electricity suppliers are no longer so hard to find, and as a technologist today, I’m encouraged that the tech industry, rightly maligned for its ethical lapses, is at last taking its responsibilities more seriously.
Although negative press and regulatory belt-tightening have encouraged this snowballing ethical momentum, most of the change stems from consumer pressure. We’ve at last grasped that commerce is one of the few effective moral levers available to individuals in a world dominated by markets; that ethical products sometimes do emerge into the moral vacuum once there’s sufficient demand. As indirect and nebulous as it may be, market pressure remains a useful ethical tool.
However, this apparent fairytale of market efficiency still carries a sting. Far too often, ethical products are positioned as luxury goods, overpriced, distanced from the mainstream, and marketed just to the rich. Meanwhile, the unethical alternative stays on the shelves, on grounds of increasing consumer choice. Unable to compete on quality or brand reputation, unethical products typically compete purely on price. The resulting race to the bottom exposes the grim underbelly of exploitative capitalism: the abusive abattoir, the sweatshop, the bribing polluter. Here we witness powerless, pitiful souls caught forever beneath the bottom rung, their suffering hidden by the distances of contemporary commerce.
Some ethical products can, of course, justify higher prices. Where workers are paid fair wages, or complex assembly reduces waste but slows down manufacture, it’s fair to reflect these costs in pricing. But the ethical sector is sadly blighted by oversized margins and routine overpricing that exploits two common attributes of ethical consumers: their sentimentality for the ethical cause, and their comparative affluence.
When ethical goods are priced and merchandised solely as luxury goods, morality itself becomes a luxury. Today we can see this pattern in the technology industry. The battle between Apple and Google, for example, is increasingly being fought on privacy territory. Although its privacy efforts are now gathering speed, Google’s business model and history have given it a reputation for data harvesting and exploitation. Seeing an opportunity to differentiate, Apple has seized the moral high ground of privacy, creating a halo effect that helps to sustain the high cost of its devices.
The sad consequence of ethical overpricing is that the people most sorely affected by society’s ethical harms – the poor – find themselves priced out of the moral market, and quite unable to act as ethical consumers themselves, much as they might like to. Ethical price inflation therefore makes it harder to tackle the power imbalances and inequities that lie at the heart of ethical issues. It also hampers enduring change. During economic downturns – baked into capitalist economies by episodic default – the market for expensive ethical goods retracts, putting at risk the gains made in the previous years.
To create significant, lasting change, ethical products must become the mainstream option.
As consumers, we have modest power to bring about this change ourselves. It’s largely futile to boycott expensive ethical products, since we then have to resort to the unethical alternative, sending entirely the wrong message. Lobbying companies to reduce price gaps or to discard unethical alternatives altogether might help, as can spending less in categories that are morally indefensible or dominated by unethical practices, such as meat, air travel, or fossil fuels.
While we lack power as consumers, we can call upon our collective strength as workers, citizens, and voters. As workers, we should impress upon our companies and executives the need to value the triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit), and to reject the siren song of unfettered profit. We must push for morality to lie at the heart of product development, reducing the harms of all products. And we must innovate relentlessly in materials and processes so we can reduce the cost of ethical goods, making them more affordable to the public.
The most harmful mass-market products should, of course, be taxed or regulated out of existence altogether. Citizens should, for example, pressure representatives to impose carbon taxes and bans on farming methods that cause excessive animal suffering. Politicians will object that this will stifle our economies and national wellbeing. Don’t listen to them. Ethical, sustainable products must serve as the cornerstone of future industries, as promised in Green New Deal policies rapidly becoming manifesto promises across the globe. It is time, more than anything, that we reject the simplistic conflation between the value of the FTSE or Dow Jones and the overall wellbeing of the nation. Blind subservience to the profit imperative is what has got us into this moral hole. It is past time we clambered out.