Consumer Responsibility and Obscurity

| May 12, 2017
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Fair trade banana cupcakes. Photo credit: We are Neo via Flickr.


Many of the goods and services we buy have dark histories. In April 2013, several thousand Bangladeshi workers making garments for western markets were ordered to return to the hazardous Rana Plaza building. It collapsed, killing over 1,100.1 In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of the profits of the trade in minerals for consumer electronics fund militias who continue to terrorize civilians and destabilize the region.2 In the U.S., electricity used by private households is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels, emitting nearly 700 million metric tons of CO2 last year, the dangerous effects of which will be fall unequally on the world’s poorest.3

In light of such disturbing elements in global supply chains, philosophers and activists saddle consumers with somewhat demanding, if imperfect, duties. First, consumers should learn about the impacts involved in the histories of some of the products they buy, and second, intentionally choose “cleaner” products over the “dirtier” alternatives. This way they play their part in reducing the negative impacts in the future. Individual consumers are exhorted by some NGOs to routinely assess costs “beyond the price tag” and to “vote with your dollars.” Even a 2009 OECD roundtable event suggested that consumers “can and should” become “more powerful drivers” of corporate responsibility.4 Philosophers writing on the topic tend to agree. David Schwartz argues that consumers first and foremost must avoid products that involve harm to others”5; Holly Lawford-Smith states that individuals have an obligation to “consume ethically,” including avoiding conflict minerals, products likely to have been produced in sweatshops, and certain supply chains of coffee, chocolate, bananas, and rice that “involve” harms.6 According to Waheed Hussain, consumers as a group have “a genuine moral duty to monitor (global) economic activity and shape their purchases accordingly.”7

The main project of what I call the “standard view” of consumer responsibility seeks to explain how individual consumers can have such duties, given the challenge that their single acts of ethical consumption seem very unlikely to make any difference on their own.8 This may be a worthwhile project, but it seems to me that the standard view moves too quickly in its placing responsibility on consumers as a group to select clean products and avoid dirty ones. The logically prior step—knowing to an appropriate standard which buying patterns are roughly desirable—is crucial. Not only do consumers need to know that some product is associated with a harm, they also need to know that alternatives exist that themselves do not create new (worse?) harms. To take one example, as electronics manufacturers have shied away from sourcing materials linked to the DRC (in response to mandatory disclosure laws and the anticipated consumer boycotts), analyses show that in many areas in that country, violent incidents have increased, as militias shift from taxing artisanal miners to looting agricultural communities.9 Also, to reduce their risk of being associated with the DRC conflict at all, some manufactures have abandoned sourcing these minerals from the whole region, hurting poor artisanal miners in Africa unconnected with the DRC and its conflict.10  The effectiveness of buying Fairtrade products on the livelihoods of the global poor is just as hard for consumers to gauge. The Fairtrade approach has been charged with problems of chronic oversupply, difficulty in ensuring the Fairtrade premium reaches the farmers, and harmful effects on non-Fairtrade farmers, who tend to be even worse-off than those in Fairtrade-certified co-operatives.11

Here I do not take a stand on whether certified DRC-conflict-free electronics or Fairtrade products are clean purchases or not. I only wish to show the difficulty for a consumer in knowing the relative value of just two aspects of consumer products. The problem multiplies. Products more complex than simple commodities may have a multitude of component parts all with different “harm footprints” including their effects on local pollution in the host country, labor and safety standards of workers, global pollution, and so on. On top of this, there are incentives not just on corporations to mislead consumers into believing they are purchasing an ethical product, but also on NGOs to appear active and successful in their labelling and mobilization campaigns. The resulting epistemic landscape seems difficult, perhaps impossible, for a consumer to effectively navigate. This stands in contrast to the degree of confidence that the consumer might have about the immediate benefits of choosing on price and quality alone.

I also see a lack of awareness in the standard view that false positives—seeing a product as dirty when it is actually no worse than its substitutes—carry significant risks. Moral self-licensing is the name for our tendency to apply less strict moral standards on ourselves after we believe we have done something worthy. There is some evidence that when one believes one has just paid a premium to buy a product that is changing the world for the better, one is less likely to donate money to worthy causes, and perhaps, to be involved in costly political action.12 If one was mistaken about the actual value of one’s “ethical” purchase, moral licensing becomes counterproductive rather than neutral. A related problem arises at the systemic level. The more we emphasise the responsibility of consumers as a group to manage global market failures, the harder it may be to hold potentially more effective agents in the supply chain (investors, managers, NGOs, workers, domestic and international governance institutions) to high ethical standards.

More speculatively, there may be a corrosive effect when those who cannot or do not choose the clean product are seen as worse than the “ethical” shoppers. Supporters of the standard view are quick to emphasise that the less well-off should not be judged for prioritizing low prices over ethical credentials, but if these products trigger the strong and contagious emotion of disgust in us, empathetically understanding others (or our own) behavior may be very difficult.13 And if, under the shaky epistemic conditions we find ourselves in, our judgement of which products are clean and which are dirty follow lines of political ideology, the marketplace becomes one more domain in which political polarization pulls communities apart. To the extent that we believe the standard view, the costs of being wrong about which are the right products to buy become formidable.

Not all philosophers and activist organizations have ignored the epistemic burdens their view places on the consumer, but when they mention it, it is usually an afterthought.14 I suspect, that if we began with the epistemology of global supply chains, we would come up with rather different theories of consumer responsibility than the standard view offers.

  1. Yardley, Jim. “Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame.” New York Times. May 22, 2013, Available at:
  2. Robarts, Fred; Alusala, Nelson; de Konig, Ruben; Hege, Steven; Plamadiala, Marie; Spittaels, Steven. Group of Experts Letter to Security Council. S/2011/738.  October 29 2011. Available at:; Clowes, William. “UN Renews Call for Negotiated Solution to Kasai Conflict in DRC. Voice of America. April 25, 2017”, Available at
  3. US Energy  Information Adminstration. “Residential Share of Electric Power Sector Co2 Emissions, 2016” (online data). Available at:
  4. OECD. Roundtable on Corporate Responsibility: Consumer Empowerment and Responsible Business Conduct (2009). Available at:
  5. Schwartz, David.  Consuming Choices: Ethics in a Global Consumer Age (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), p. 88. See also Lichtenberg, Judith. “Negative duties, positive duties, and the “new harms”.” Ethics  Vol. 120, No. 3 (2010): 557-578
  6. Lawford-Smith, Holly. “Unethical Consumption and Obligations to Signal,” Ethics & International Affairs Vol 29, No. 3 (2015) p. 316.
  7. Hussain, Waheed, “Stepping Up: Ethical Consumerism in a World of Diminished States,” in Leadership and Global Justice (Springer, 2012) p. 158
  8. Nefsky, Julia. “Consumer Choice and Collective Impact,” in Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (Oxford UP, Forthcoming). Budolfson, Mark. “The Inefficacy Objection to Consequentialism and the Problem with the Expected Consequences Response,” Philosophical Studies (forthcoming).
  9. Parker, David; Aragon, Host Fernando; and Parker, Dominic P. “Resource Cursed or Policy Cursed?” Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. 2017 Vol. 4 no. 11 (2017) p. 1-49.
  10. Robarts et al op. cit. para 395, see also Duke University Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, Report on Conflict Minerals. May 1, 2012. p 15. Available at:
  11. Griffiths, Peter. “Ethical Objections to Fairtrade.” Journal of Business Ethics. Vol. 105, No. 3 (2012), 357-373.  De Janvry, Alain; McIntosh, Craig; and Sadoulet, Elisabeth. “Fair Trade and Free Entry: Can a Disequilibrium Market Serve as a Development Tool?” Review of Economics and Statistics. Vol. 97, No. 3 (2015), p. 567-573.
  12. Langen, Nina, Are Ethical Consumption and Charitable Giving Substitutes or Not? Insights into Consumers’ Coffee Choice,” Food Quality and Preference . Vol. 22, No. 5 (2011), 412-421 ; Engel, Jannis and Szech, Nora “A Little Good Is Good Enough: Ethical Consumption, Cheap Excuses, and Moral Self-Licensing,”WZB Discussion Paper. April, 2017. Available at:
  13. Nussbaum, Martha C. “Danger to Human Dignity: The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 50, No. 48 (2004), ; Kelly, Daniel and Morar, Nicolae “Against the Yuck Factor: On the Ideal Role of Disgust in Society.” Utilitas. Vol. 26, No. 02 (2014), 153-177.
  14. Schwartz (op cit) devotes three pages to it in his book, and Lichtenberg (op. cit.) mentions it in passing. Both raise it as a difficulty faced by the standard view, but do not incorporate it into their theory. Activist websites note the costs of gaining good information, but still exhort consumers to do what they can, and focus on particular areas that interest them.
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