Guest Column

July 6, 2014

Ethical consumerism in vogue

Last week, I was a member of a panel conducting telephone interviews for a foundation seeking to hire a program officer. In response the request to “tell me something about yourself that I wouldn’t know from reading you resume,” one candidate responded that he actively promoted ethical consumerism.

“Ethical consumerism.” It brought back memories of when I worked on the U.S. Oval and would engage in conversation with a CV TEC employee who was fanatical about the topic.

As she explained to me, ethical consumerism is “the practice of purchasing products and services produced in a way that minimizes social and/or environments damage, while avoiding products and services deemed to have a negative impact on society or the environment.”

The goal is to create a sustainable future for the planet.

While articles on ethical consumerism would have you believe that it’s a recent phenomenon, it’s has actually been around for a while. A colonist protesting the Stamp Act of 1756 by boycotting tea or other British goods was a form of ethical consumerism. Although the term “boycott” wouldn’t originate until the late 19th century, when Irish Home Rule leader Charles Parnell coined the term in a campaign against an oppressive property owner, Charles Boycott.

Boycotts are a common form of ethical consumerism, especially at the social issue end of the ethical consumerism spectrum.

For many who practice ethical consumerism, it’s akin to a religion steeped in guilt. I can see my former nemesis, Sister Mary Agatha, scowling at me now. Are you drinking fair-trade coffee? Is that cup recyclable? How are you going to offset the carbon emitted by the airplane that took you on vacation? How much virtual water is in that shirt you’re wearing?

For the uninitiated, virtual water is the measure of all the water it takes to make the products you use. One website estimates that it takes approximately 715 gallons of water to make a new cotton shirt. It includes the amount of water used in irrigating growing the cotton, the water needed to dilute the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, etc.

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