A person browsing the shopsunsplash/charlesdeluvio

I stand paralysed in Tesco Express. One pack of biscuits purports to be “good for both planet and taste buds” but each individual biscuit is imprisoned in its own plastic wrapping. My alternative option is minimally packaged, just a nice slick cardboard box. Yet upon closer inspection I realise that palm oil is the key agent that binds these biscuits together. Maybe I’ll just get some fruit, I think, but the sight of the plastic webbing encasing a bundle of satsumas almost sends me into tears.

To many this line of thinking will sound exhausting, obsessive, absurd even. Yet, after discussions in climate activist circles or just among friends trying to “do the right thing”, I come to realise that feats of mental gymnastics in aisle six are more common than one might first think. The fundamental question remains: how does one reconcile their moral imperatives with the minutiae of daily life choices, particularly when it seems the two refuse to align?

In recent years, the ‘ethical consumer’ has been posited as the sole answer to this question. In short, the ethical consumer believes in the power of their individual consumptive choices in enacting change. In such a worldview, each well-intentioned purchase is a step closer to a new world: an optimistic yet fundamentally flawed praxis. Nonetheless it has been broadly appealing for a few central reasons. First and foremost it is a relatively ‘quick fix’ for those who are privileged enough to engage with it. Why sign a parliamentary petition if you can instead swap your disposable shopping bag for a much more fashionable cotton tote bag? Similarly, there is a feel-good factor to it that exists in its moral compromise. I may not be shopping less perhaps, but if all my shopping is from ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ clothing brands (so they claim) my trade-off can feel much larger than it perhaps actually is. Perhaps most difficult to admit, one can’t deny it lends itself to a certain air of superiority. A fridge full of oat milk and vegan meat alternatives has come to have a symbolic and cultural power that ethical consumerism helps maintain.

Yet even for those entirely mindful of the fallacies of such beliefs – those like myself – the traps are easy to be ensnared in. Cline’s Atmos article titled ′The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer’ tells a similar story. Cline highlights powerfully how the pandemic opened her eyes to the fact that her choices as an ethical consumer were having no impact on the countless individuals – often women of colour or working classes – who were bearing the brunt of the worst of the climate crisis in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, she could recognise how potent a trap ethical consumerism was.

“Equally, I know that my choice of biscuits will not form a new world order, and yet the pressure encroaches. Why?”

What many people don’t go so far to recognise in their takedowns of the ‘ethical consumer’ is that the individual is actually not to blame. Rather, the ethical consumer mindset is a direct product of the environment we live in where governments and large corporations promote the idea that power and purchasing are one and the same. As Liz Ricketts suggests, vis-à-vis excessive clothing consumption, we are trained to believe that power is only accessible to us via our shopping habits – we willingly accept that this is all we have control over and don’t stop to question or rebel. Inherent in the label ‘ethical consumer’ is reducing personhood down to what one does or does not purchase. Before we know it, all of our minute decisions seem to be colliding into one another, sending us into a mental tailspin and an inevitable crisis in the middle of the biscuit aisle.

One must recognise this is not incidental. Rather it is a narrative crafted with intentionality and care, all to absolve the real guilty parties – corporations and governments – of responsibility. Corporations and Big Oil, for instance, have had an active role in the construction of the ethical consumer. Consider how the infamous carbon footprint framework was masterminded by BP, one of the world’s highest carbon emitters. Or how mass producers of plastic goods such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Unilever have been free to overproduce while consumers are instructed to reuse shopping bags and switch to reusable straws. And this doesn’t even account for how companies now don’t just seek acquittal, but actively greenwash to generate greater profit off of the climate crisis. Reusable shopping bags are wonderful, but when individual action is estimated to only account for around 4% of resisting climate change, they are insufficient alone. Harm is done here in a multitude of ways: the scale and impact of the climate crisis is diminished, structural and systemic elements that have precipitated our present conditions are obscured, and profit is prioritised at the expense of people. Ethical consumerism is simply the latest chapter in a very old tale.

Falling square within a capitalist world system, this is only natural, but it also then reveals the first step to truly meaningful action: looking outside of the consumptive framework. When one abandons the idea that consumption is the pivotal change we facilitate, we are free to action our belief systems in new ways.

“Sustainability, then, is fundamentally about the way you think”

Whether organising and taking to the streets in protest, organising community discussions and events for climate justice, speaking to parliamentary personnel, or simply encouraging conversation and dialogue around the climate crisis, there is a whole world of change outside of the aisles of Tesco Express.


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Such a recognition does not entirely extricate us from putting care into our purchasing. Rather, it re-centres purchasing as just one node in the nexus of the way we live what we believe. Ultimately, progress over perfection is the age-old adage that applies best when we think of how our consumption intersects with our sustainable beliefs. Weeks on from the Tesco Express debacle, a friend relays to me a similar experience, so in response, I send her one of my favourite quotes from the legendary Roxane Gay:

“Every day, I try to make the best decisions possible about what I create, what I consume, and who I collaborate with — but living in the world, participating in capitalism, requires moral compromise. I am not looking for purity; it doesn’t exist. Instead, I’m trying to do the best I can, and take a stand when I think I can have an impact.”

After hitting send, I shuffle over to Twitter. I munch on my biscuits, knowing I will recycle the cardboard box they come in when I am finished. Neymar and his private jet appear at the top of my timeline. I am reminded of the much bigger picture, and so I munch on in peace.