Elizabeth L. Cline is a journalist and expert on consumer culture, fast fashion, sustainability, and labor rights in the fashion industry. She is the author of two books 'Overdressed' and 'The Conscious Closet.' This piece was originally published in Atmos in October 2020 and is the first in an ongoing collaboration highlighting stories that bring a critical lens to consumerism and its impact on our planet. 

During the pandemic, like everyone else, I made promises to myself and tried to take up healthier habits. I started knitting, drawing, and journaling again. I traded in my reality TV addiction for Ken Burns documentaries. And, while others were learning to bake bread or garden, I decided to stop being an Ethical Consumer. One day, I needed new pajamas. Gap was selling two pairs for $40, so I bought them. I needed home office supplies, so I ordered them off Amazon. And I went back to using plastic single-use cups at my local coffee shop.

Ethical Consumers are people who believe that we are slowly and inexorably driving business and society to be more responsible one purchase at a time. For decades, I’ve bought into this belief system, right down to eating vegetarian, buying organic food, eschewing corporate fashion, and writing books about conscious consumption. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood engineered for Ethical Consumers, dotted with non-toxic nail salons, Fair Trade baby clothes stores, and organic wine shops. Being an Ethical Consumer is a part of my everyday reality, my work, and my identity—or at least it was.

I could explain my decision to give it all up as a lack of emotional energy or money to shop ethically during the pandemic. Or blame it on the fact that my coffee shop prohibited reusable containers for all the obvious reasons. Those things are true, but the turning point for me was working on the #PayUp campaign, a mass movement of citizens and garment workers that formed in March 2020 to pressure huge apparel chains, including Gap, to pay their garment workers for $40 billion worth of orders manufactured prior to the pandemic. (Gap and 20 other companies have since agreed to pay.) I also raised money for garment workers who lost their jobs and were going hungry. These are mostly women of color who, despite working for the world’s largest apparel brands, live in poverty and have no safety net.

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What did all of my decades of Ethical Consumerism do to protect these workers and raise their wages? Nothing. My Ethical Consumption couldn’t protect Black and brown people from dying and getting critically ill in far higher percentages than white people during the pandemic. It hasn’t put a dent in climate change or plastic pollution. It couldn’t even protect retail workers, even those employed in “ethical” chain stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, who had to keep working as the virus spread often because they don’t earn enough money to stay home.

The pandemic has swept away so many illusions. Our societal problems, from the climate crisis and systemic racism to economic inequality, run so deep and down to the bone that we’ve had no choice but to face them. For me, that’s meant that I’ve stopped confusing my ethical PJs for social change—and I’ve thrown myself into figuring out how to build real political power instead.

How Our Politics Got Turned Inside Out

I’m certainly not the first to wrestle with the paradox of Ethical Consumption or to doubt its efficacy. An excellent 2010 academic study called the Myth of the Ethical Consumer found that most consumers consistently overstate their allegiance to social or ecologically-sound products (price is the most determining factor when we shop). Since then, the market for responsibly-made goods has exploded, and yet it remains unclear how much of these gains have gone to big companies, who’ve gotten better at marketing minimal sustainability efforts as green, or can be explained by increasing inequality itself (more rich people mean more buyers for pricey ethical products). We’ve certainly seen an uptick in Ethical Consumption conundrums that further muddy the waters, like “sustainable” fast fashion collections sewn by sweatshop workers and cage-free chicken raised on factory farms and by growers toiling in debt to food corporations. As the 2010 anthology’s title gets at, Ethical Consumption can ultimately serve as a type of delusion or fantasy where we tell ourselves that our economic actions are righteous and that we’re doing our small part to make a difference, even in the face of underwhelming evidence.

An increasing number of people question whether we can “shop our way to progress,” as a recent Vogue piece put it. There are Reddit threads and an article in The Guardian from earlier this year that have pointed out that Ethical Consumption is a politics of the well-to-do, and there’s also the well-circulated Marxist notion that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Though many of us intuit that Ethical Consumption has put society on the wrong path, we seem equally unsure of how to make change otherwise. When it comes to creating a sustainable and equitable world, what better choices do we have than smashing the state or reshuffling the contents of our shopping carts?

To fully answer that question, it’s helpful to understand how we came to confuse shopping with social change to begin with. It may feel like Ethical Consumerism has always been a part of who we are, but I’m old enough to remember a time before, when if you wanted to shop with your values, that meant buying something from Walmart and DIY-ing it to make it look cool or having to drive across state lines to buy vegan food at an independently-owned health food store.

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Ethical Consumers are a byproduct of epic neoliberal economic changes that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. Republicans staged a backlash against what they saw as government largesse, progressive overreach, and the mass movements of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War era (Democrats later jumped on the bandwagon). Neoliberalism spread the mantra that human needs and even solutions to social problems are best met by the marketplace and by capitalism—not government, civil society, or collective action. Out went strong environmental regulations, social welfare programs, labor unions, and, most crucially, our generations-long history and culture of how to make change through public rather than private means.

I have started to wonder not only if Ethical Consumerism is ineffective, but also, whether it’s actually getting people killed and driving our planet to ruin, and why we continue to throw our power away on ethical shopping.

Gradually, over the years, Ethical Consumerism went from a niche lifestyle for radicals and hippies to a corporate-controlled bubble we (meaning the people who have the time and the extra money to spend on ethical products) never have to leave. Doing good in this model is achieved by big business through voluntary “corporate social responsibility” and by citizens through the way we shop. I can order organic produce from Whole Foods and have it delivered to my house in under an hour. And, of course, fashion chains have absorbed my values, too. One of Gap’s Fall 2020 ad campaign features climate activists, and Primark, another company that canceled orders during the pandemic but has since agreed to #PayUp, is selling outerwear made from recycled plastic bottles as part of its Primark Cares collection.

By the time I penned Overdressed in 2012, Ethical Consumerism was an entrenched ideology, espoused by many of society’s brightest minds. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma gave weighty, intellectual purpose to our cause. Pollan inspired us to learn where our food comes from, not in order to reform corporate food systems but so we can make more informed and satisfying dietary choices in our private lives. Likewise, Eric Schlosser ended his incredible investigative book Fast Food Nation with a mantra we’ve all absorbed: “The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: Stop buying it.” Meaning, the best way to reform the $239 billion U.S. fast-food industry is to eat at a different restaurant.

After laying out my own blistering indictment of fast fashion in Overdressed, I argued that what we needed was to return to simpler times, to slow down, shop less, self-provision more—and let the market know that we want ethical and sustainable clothes. For CNN, I wrote an op-ed that declared, “If just a quarter of our purchases were put toward locally made or eco-friendly fashion and fashion companies with a commitment to sustainability, we could change the face of the industry.” But the pandemic finally forced me to confront the failures of three decades of this market-driven approach to change. I have started to wonder not only if Ethical Consumerism is ineffective, but also, whether it’s actually getting people killed and driving our planet to ruin, and why we continue to throw our power away on ethical shopping.

The Decline of the Consumer Activist

What would a world of social change look like that doesn’t include reading the fine print on product labels and chastising friends for shopping at the “wrong” stores? Some of us are 30 years out of practice and right to wonder. But if we look just a little way back, to before the neoliberal era, we can find consumer-driven social movements that wielded extraordinary amounts of political power and made lasting changes to society that still benefit us today.

The “consumer movement,” as it was known, was one of the most successful social movements of the 20th century, aiming to protect citizens from corrupt economic and government power as it intersected with the products they purchased. Some of the heroes of this movement are familiar. Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring went to war with the powerful petrochemical industry and helped galvanize consumers around the issue of toxic pesticides. Activists won a total ban on the lethal chemical DDT, and subsequent citizen protests helped found the Environmental Protection Agency. Ralph Nader’s 1965 landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed called out the American auto industry for endangering drivers, which led to government-mandated safety standards in cars, including seat belts and airbags. Earlier eras of consumer activism resulted in antitrust laws, first enforced in the early decades of the 20th century.

Likewise, the Civil Rights movement leveraged the growing buying power of Black Americans to challenge segregation and racist hiring practices, and to improve government representation using a combination of targeted and highly organized boycotts and “selective buying,” where communities would collectively avoid a list of stores until powerful White shop owners met Black citizens’ demands. The strategy was so effective and financially ruinous in some places that Mississippi passed a law banning certain types of boycotts for a time and recommended the federal government do the same.

It might sound like we’re cut from the same cloth, but Consumer Activists of yesteryear share few similarities with our modern Ethical Consumer selves. While Consumer Activists went to great lengths to understand how products were made and sold and how corporations function, this process of knowing was not in service of choosing better products (à la the Pollan era of privatized enlightened consumption)—it was for the explicit purpose of holding corporations and government accountable. “Consumer reforms cannot be separated from corporate reforms: they are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Nader in The Consumer and Corporate Accountability, a 1973 anthology of the movement’s mid-career victories.

What’s more, while today’s Ethical Consumers debate whether it’s appropriate to call humans “consumers” instead of “citizens,” Consumer Activists saw the two terms as compatible, as being an informed consumer was an exercise in good citizenship. In fact, the goal of the consumer movement was always to change society’s rules so the entire public benefited. That meant having a racist policy overturned, a monopoly busted, a dangerous product regulated or banned. “Once the zest and skill for acquiring hard to get information is developed, the very process of seeking generates an understanding of citizen rights, remedies, and participation and decisions that affect everyone,” wrote Nader.

The most striking difference between yesterday’s consumer activist and today’s ethical consumer is the matter of responsibility. Who or what is to blame for social problems, and who has the power to solve them? Consumer Activists believed that companies selling goods and services have a responsibility to “their customers, to their workers, and to the government agencies which regulate them.” Companies have a responsibility to society. And when companies endanger us or the environment, it’s their fault, not ours as shoppers. They understood that the market must be tamed with democracy, and rules, and guardrails, or it would always exploit.

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The Ethical Consumer, by contrast, somehow believes that we personally cause social problems by sending market cues that we want unethical and unsustainable products. If we follow our own beliefs to their logical conclusion, that means problems as serious as the climate crisis, racist inequality, union-busting, food deserts, and sweatshop wages are somehow the result of not shopping in the right stores. How convenient for the Fortune 500 companies that directly cause so many of these troubles.

We must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy.

Law professor and anti-monopoly crusader Zephyr Teachout grapples with the fallout from this shift—from public to private change and to blaming ourselves for corporate misbehavior—in her new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. She writes, “When progressives do fight private power, we often do so on the terms set by the right, in which one’s role as a consumer is more centrally important than one’s role as a citizen.” Teachout points out the reflexive guilt that liberals feel when we use Uber or Amazon or give our money to other “bad companies,” and notes our highly privatized response to corporate malfeasance. Our instinct is to delete our social media account instead of demanding that the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice stop mergers, hold social media companies liable for what gets posted, and break up Big Tech.

Even though it’s mostly progressives who identify as Ethical Consumers, as Teachout illuminates, making change through the way we shop is ultimately a right-wing idea. We’ve fully embraced the neoliberal system and worldview that change should happen through the marketplace. Conservatives are the ones who think the best solutions to social problems as market solutions and have fought historically-progressive strategies to tackle social and environmental problems such as government regulation, public spending, better education, social programs, and trade pacts that protect human rights and the environment both here and abroad. Ethical Consumption may have started out 30 years ago as a byproduct of our powerlessness in the neoliberal era, but somewhere along the way we bought into it.

That brings us back to [today]. Strategies change. Society changes. In Nader’s heyday, there were no Whole Foods or eco-friendly resorts or vegan hamburgers at fast-food chains. Ethical Consumers go about making change in a different way, through private means. But, you might ask, don’t all the growing options for ethical and sustainable products mean the Ethical Consumer strategy is effective in its own right?

We are certainly effective at growing a booming and separate market for ethical and sustainable products, including my own books, which is good for the people and businesses who work in those sectors. Ethical Consumerism can also be a way to preserve anti-corporate culture and test out sustainable and socially responsible ideas that aren’t possible in the mainstream.

But I think it’s self-evident that Ethical Consumerism is a grossly inadequate and unequal response to our most pressing problems, like the climate crisis, systemic racism, sweatshop wages, growing inequality, and so on. Moreso, I’m convinced these problems are in large part created by unchecked corporate power, unregulated capitalism, and our weakened democracy that Ethical Consumers help prop up. Fashion is a perfect example: What drives sweatshops is not a consumer demand for sweatshops. It is a lack of proper labor laws to protect garment workers and intense economic concentration that incentivizes the industry to drive down wages. The best solution to this problem is to nurture our democracy and return to the progressive and strong mass movements of the past that provide a counterweight to the market’s crushing power.

Does this mean our Ethical Consumption choices never matter — and we might as well go back to drinking from plastic straws and binge shopping on Amazon Prime? Or can we make systemic change and vote with our dollars? There are examples where Ethical Consumption makes a tangible difference. Electing to not overconsume or choosing to buy a product made by workers earning living wages come to mind. One might argue that avoiding a plastic cup or straw matters (although it hasn’t put a dent in overall plastic production).

But where we get ourselves into trouble is in viewing shopping as a moral act —and viewing shopping at a cheap chain store that has poor business practices as an immoral one. Consumption is an economic imperative (there’s no escaping it under capitalism), and it is fundamentally determined by our income. Unless we believe that rich people, who can afford more ethical products, are somehow more ethical than the rest of us, we must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy. In fact, I now believe that the only ethical approach to consumption (if such a thing exists) is to make the cheapest available products as responsibly as possible, as was recently argued in The Guardian, which means overhauling the big companies that make most of the stuff that most people buy.

Bursting Your Bubble

My argument is not a free pass to stop caring about the impact of consumer product companies on people and the planet. Rather, it’s the opposite: This is a call to action to take all that time and energy you would be putting toward curating that perfect ethical lifestyle and weaponizing it to transform the marketplace in ways that tackle root causes. We must not mistake Ethical Consumption—a private act—for political power or organized, collective social change that benefits everyone. When we retreat into our Ethical Consumer bubbles, some of the most powerful institutions in our society get a free pass to run roughshod over people who don’t have the market choices we do.

The myth of the Ethical Consumer is hard to shake, but I think we can start to push back against it by asking ourselves, as we shop, if we are offering a powerful enough solution to the social problems we encounter. Are we engaging in a private and personal antidote to a sickness, whether plastic pollution or poverty wages, that is borne by the public? Finally, would the problem you’re trying to address with your shopping cart be better tackled by a new rule, a new regulation, a ban, an incentive, a new social program, a different way of doing things? The answer is almost always yes.

None of this is easy. Learning how to get involved in real political movements means learning entirely new skills (Eitan Hersh’s book Politics Is for Power is a great starter guide) and requires reinvigorating our broken political system, the rewards of which require patience. And Ethical Consumption is second nature to many of us. Recently, when I posted about PayUp Fashion, our new phase of the #PayUp campaign in the Consumer Activist tradition of calling for systemic reform of corporate fashion, including new laws and regulations to create living wages for all garment workers, a colleague responded, “This is why we need to support small business.” We still cling to the hope that we just need to expand our ranks. Likewise, when Everlane’s workers tried to unionize earlier this year, the Instagram comments were mostly some variation of, “I won’t be shopping there again.” A more powerful strategy, the public strategy, would be to find ways to support organized labor across the retail sector.

Would the problem you’re trying to address with your shopping cart be better tackled by a new rule, a new regulation, a ban, an incentive, a new social program, a different way of doing things? The answer is almost always yes.

When in doubt, think like a Consumer Activist. Rather than give up plastic to-go cups, Consumer Activists would work together to ban single-use plastics, investigate the plastic industry’s influence over American government, and push our government to propose a low-carbon national policy that undercuts the plastic lobby’s clout. Rather than buy organic food, they’d call to better regulate the petrochemical industry, build new social programs to support sustainable farming, and work to ban toxins. And rather than boycott Amazon or delete Instagram, we’d realize our own antitrust laws should’ve never allowed these platforms to have this much control to begin with.

There are also examples in the here and now that show how social change can work today. We are already seeing the Twilight of the Ethical Consumer and a huge shift toward mass movements and systemic social change. Teachout gives the example of the growing anti-monopoly movement that aims to break up Big Tech and Big Ag. Similarly, Black Lives Matter is demanding government accountability and a reallocation of taxpayer money from policing to community resources. Likewise, our new campaign, PayUp Fashion, calls for corporate accountability, legal reforms, higher wages, and regulation in the apparel industry. All that time I spent scouring product labels and doing interviews about how to build an ethical wardrobe is now dedicated to building a grassroots consumer activist movement and reaching out to legal and labor rights experts to help our cause.

Now, when these big apparel companies mess up, I understand it’s their responsibility to change, not mine to change the contents of my shopping cart. And when we compel companies and governments to change, that change becomes available to everyone, instead of just the consumers who know about or can afford ethical products. Knowing that, I sleep quite easily in my unethical pajamas.

Must-Reads From This Article

Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader Consumer And Corporate Accountability by Ralph Nader Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money by Zephyr Teachout Politics is for Power by Eitan Hersh

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