What does 'ethical consumerism' really mean?

Every consumer is faced with numerous choices these days which makes shopping a confusing prospect. For a consumer who wants to make a difference with the choices they make, this becomes even more complicated because there is loads of contradictory information out there.

Many hard-core sustainability activists believe that anything that is mass-produced is harmful and should be avoided - this automatically means no supermarkets. However there are many people in the world without access to a farmer's market or organic store and among this population, there may be people who are keen to live a sustainable life. For them the question may not be how to be an ethical consumer but how to choose the lesser of the two evils.

Becoming an ethical consumer is a gradual process and it takes a certain amount of introspection about what you are willing to change in your life and why. Every person comes with a boundary of their ethics and this decides their consumer behaviour, this is why the definition of 'ethical' becomes subjective. Broadly, ethical consumerism can be defined a type of consumer behaviour that endorses products produced with a respect for the environment and people. A little bit of research is needed to figure out the companies you will buy from and the ones you will not but ethical consumption goes far beyond compiling a list of green brands. A far more easier thing to do is to look at what you can avoid and live without rather than just switching brands.

Personally, I don't ever buy processed food, juice in cartons, meat in a supermarket and vegetables in plastic bags. To some people this behaviour will not fall under the category of an ethical consumer because I still do go to supermarkets and others might think its extreme because I don't buy juice in cartons. Also the general rule of the thumb is that, whatever is good for your health is also good for the environment. Admittedly I don't buy processed food because it's bad for me - that is my primary motive, the environmental impact of that decision although substantial, is secondary.

Many people chose to buy conventionally grown vegetables locally rather than industrialized organic food with added food miles. Others choose not to drink soda or carry reusable bags. Still others go out of their way to only buy sustainable cosmetics or antibiotic-free meat products. There are no ground-rules to be an ethical consumer. Every decision you take is an educated choice.

There have been numerous surveys which say that consumers don't mind paying extra for a product that is ethically produced. However when faced with the choice of ethics and convenience, convenience will win the majority of the time. The drivers of ethical consumption are very difficult to map and although most people have good intentions it's very hard to study how these intentions come into play when it comes to actual buying behaviour.

Consumers have the undeniable power to change the way industries view sustainability. The basis of ethical consumerism lies as much in consumer power as industrial aspirations.