Consumer Ethics

Consumer Ethics


The majority of this text has focused on business ethics from the perspective of businesses themselves – their leaders, employees, and stakeholders. Before we leave this topic, let’s take a moment to consider business ethics from the perspective of the consumer. Not everyone is involved in the business world by profession, but all of us engage with it as consumers, usually with little to no thought regarding the moral implications of our own actions as we make choices about where to shop and what to buy.

In a traditional capitalist framework, corporations and businesses are generally set up with one goal in mind – maximizing profit. This pursuit of profit can and often does result in businesses behaving in a way that, if they were an individual, we would find blameworthy. Yet, most of us go about our lives purchasing goods and services from these companies, without considering the implications of our own actions regarding their morally problematic behavior.

So, what do we do? We want to buy products we love and need, companies want to make as much money as possible, and all the while other humans, animals, governments, and the environment pay the price, through unsafe and exploitive working conditions, unsustainable production methods, and more.


Possible Moral Factors in Your Purchases


Consumer ethics asks us to consider a variety of factors that, arguably, ought to impact our purchasing decisions. When considered in isolation, most of us profess to care about these issues. Consumer ethicists argue that, if we truly care, we must put our money where our mouth is, and make purchasing decisions that align with our moral values. Some key factors to consider are outlined below.


How the company treats its workers


Many workers are not paid a living wage, have their hours limited to just under full time so that the company does not have to pay them benefits, and risk losing their jobs if they miss work due to illness or other unavoidable illnesses. While some countries, like the United States, do have some legal protections for workers, they often don’t go far enough, or can be skirted in various ways. Gig workers, for example, are often granted fewer legal protection. And companies can and do choose to outsource their factory labor to countries with fewer protections, so even if the company itself is domestic, you can’t count on all the labor involved in those products having U.S.-level worker’s rights.


The materials the product is made from


Many of us would be horrified to realize just what goes into the products we consume without thinking. While the FDA does require companies to disclose ingredients, there’s still plenty of room for us to be misled. For instance, it’s unlikely that most people who see “chicken” on an ingredient list take that to mean a pink paste that is made from grinding up what is left of chicken bodies after they have been butchered for their meat –including blood, skin, bones, organs – everything but the feathers.[1] But this is exactly what the most affordable chicken nuggets are made out of.


The methods used to make the product


Some companies use methods that are unnecessary and cruel. If a cleaning or personal care product does not say that it was not tested on animals, it probably was, and in addition to the suffering itself, this is hugely wasteful. For instance, bleach is simply sodium hypochlorite diluted in water. Although it is a simple formula with well-known effects that have not changed in decades, some companies continue to test it on animals – and sure enough, it continues to be harmful every time it is rubbed into a rabbit’s eye!


The environmental impact of the production and sale of the product


Some products create hidden environmental damage that consumers are entirely unaware of. For instance, something as seemingly benign and even “pure” as bottled water is often produced at a steep cost, draining natural waterways and aquifers and producing massive amounts of plastic waste.[2] Many products are shipped far away from their source, failing to serve the residents of the communities where they are sourced, and resulting in high transportation costs, which of course carry additional environmental burdens.


Does the company have political or social agendas that you object to?


Companies can support political and social positions in several ways. They can donate directly to political campaigns and political action committees, or to organizations that support and promote specific agendas, such as the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood. Increasingly, companies are incorporating social positions into their branding, making their support of particular social causes or beliefs part of the face of the company. This can be a reason for some to actively embrace, or reject, that company’s products, depending on whether it aligns with their own beliefs.


Proximity and Psychological Impact


For most people, few if any of the previous factors have ever occurred to them. This is because, except in instances in which we are being unusually careful in the way that we think, psychological impact correlates with physical proximity – out of sight out of mind. It is easy not to think about the fact that your cheeseburger was a living being capable of pain and suffering if you’ve never had to watch cows be slaughtered and butchered. All you ever see is the heavily processed end product that looks nothing like a living animal. Likewise, when the sweatshop workers laboring under brutal working conditions are thousands of miles away, it’s easy to look at our low-cost fast fashion and see nothing but something new and fun to wear this weekend. This dissonance poses a real problem in trying to solve moral issues of this kind. Our ignorance lets us live our lives unperturbed, but it means that others are suffering with little hope of reprieve, since we can so easily put their pain out of mind.


Direct vs. Indirect Harm


Consumer ethics is tricky, because there are so many players involved, it’s hard to pinpoint responsibility. And we’re often more than eager to shift the blame to someone else, so that we don’t have to feel guilt over our own role in a complex system. When thinking about who bears moral responsibility in the production and commerce of consumer goods, it’s helpful to make a distinction between direct and indirect harm.


Direct harm is harm caused when one person takes a specific action against another person. Stealing someone’s car or punching them in the nose are paradigmatic examples of direct harm. These are fairly simple cases, as it’s clear who bears moral responsibility for the action.


Indirect harm is harm that happens to a person as a byproduct of another action. Littering and pollution are paradigmatic examples of indirect harm. Indirect harm is often the result of a cumulative build-up of actions. For instance, if one person leaves a piece of trash behind at the beach, probably nothing bad happens. One cow’s methane production does no harm to the atmosphere. But many people’s small actions can make bodies of water uninhabitable for marine life, and huge cattle farms release damaging levels of methane into the air.


How Do We Understand Moral Responsibility in a Business?


Typically, people talk about businesses as if they are singular things – the US Supreme Court has even ruled that they should be treated as persons for the purposes of speech. Businesses are not monoliths, though. They are composed of individuals. Employees, boards of directors, presidents, etc. So, who should we blame when businesses do wrong? Typically, businesses themselves blame individuals when something goes wrong. Don’t blame the company for the wrongdoing of a few bad apples, the argument goes. The problem with this type of approach, though, is that it ignores institutional norms and cultures that give rise to the “bad apples.”


Who’s Responsible?


When trying to determine moral responsibility, in consumer ethics cases, we must consider the scope of indirect harm. There are a few different positions one might take, including the view that only direct harm should be considered.


The corporations alone


This position holds that since the businesses are the ones doing the direct harm, they are solely responsible for any harm or wrongdoing that occurs. On this view, consumers incur no moral responsibility in patronizing a company that has caused harm – they are merely engaging in a commercial transaction, and as long as they’re not stealing or paying for the product with illicit funds, they are not blameworthy.


The consumer alone


This position holds that business are not moral agents, so if anyone is responsible, it must be the consumer. Businesses, after all, only care about making money, and if consumers refuse to buy their product for a moral reason, those financially motivated businesses would quickly change their behavior. In other, companies are only as good or as bad as the people who keep them in business.


Joint responsibility


This position holds that the corporations are responsible because they are doing direct harm, but also recognizes that they would not be doing that harm if it weren’t for the consumer. On this view, consumers are not let off the hook. It is true that an individual can’t control the actions of a corporation, but it is within an individual’s power to refrain from giving that corporation their money.


Governmental responsibility


This position argues that the government bears moral responsibility for businesses within its jurisdiction. This view argues that consumers can’t know what businesses are doing behind closed doors, and furthermore shouldn’t be expected to investigate them to make sure they aren’t behaving immorally. And, on the flip side, this view argues that corporations should be free to seek profit within the bounds of the law. So, if companies are behaving badly, it is because the government is allowing them to do so, and the way forward is through more government regulations that will ensure that companies behave in at least minimally descent ways.


How Should We Respond?


Assuming we do think we have at least some moral responsibility for the behavior of companies that we support financially, we still need to determine the right way to respond.


Boycotts can be a very effective way to get businesses to change their behavior. For a boycott to really work, however, a lot of people need to get on board. Even if you don’t think you’re going to actually convince the company to change its mind, however, you still might make the personal choice not to give a company you disagree with your business. Others argue that, rather than just avoiding a business that will likely continue to exist whether you give it your money or not, it’s more effective to work with the business, trying to bring about positive changes.

Caring Consumers

Today more than ever, many people who care about behaving morally take advantage of the availability of information about companies to really live out their moral convictions through their purchasing dollars. And more and more companies are happy to oblige, offering products that are cruelty-free, kind to the environment, and/or that donate a portion of their profits to charitable organizations or social causes. This allows consumers to really feel good about where their money is going, while getting products they want at the same time.


[1] Hamblin, James. “Look Inside a Chicken Nugget,” The Atlantic, 2013.

[2] Sainato, Michael and Chelsea Skojec. “Bottled Water is Sucking Florida Dry,” New York Times, September 15, 2019.


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Business Ethics by the authors & Hillsborough Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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