That may seem like a crazy thing to say, but here is why I say it. Simply put, by creating a premium-priced, niche market for ‘ethical consumption’ (whether it be organic, fairtrade or eco-friendly), companies have been able to present a responsible front to the world, while leaving the vast majority of their products – which are, by implication, less than ethical – unquestioned and unchanged. At the same time, a small group of usually well-to-do Western consumers have been able to ease their conscience by feeling that they are making a positive difference.
Now let me be clear. I am not against organic or fairtrade or ecofriendly products per se. That would be insane. Clearly, there are groups of producers – usually poor farmers in the Third World – that have benefited from these initiatives. What I am against is the voluntary nature and premium pricing of sustainable and responsible products. The combination of these two factors has ensured that, with one or two exceptions, these products have never gone to scale. As compared with the total and ongoing impacts of mainstream shopping habits, ethical consumption, laudable as it is, has remained marginal at best and totally insignificant at worst.