A Middle Class Concern?

There is a perception that ethical consumption is essentially a middle-class issue – seen more as a declaration of status rather than an ethical concern. The stereotype conjures up images of the complacent self accredited fair trade individual who recycles their waste on the one hand, while at the same time sees no issue with driving their gas-guzzling SUV or widening their carbon footprint with regular long distance holidays. The Guardian article below illustrates this point.

“Green idealists fail to make the grade”, says study. By David Adam

“People who believe they have the greenest lifestyles can be seen as some of the main culprits behind global warming, says a team of researchers, who claim that many ideas about sustainable living are a myth.

According to the researchers, people who regularly recycle rubbish and save energy at home are also the most likely to take frequent long-haul flights abroad. The carbon emissions from such flights can swamp the green savings made at home, the researchers claim.

Stewart Barr, of Exeter University, who led the research, said: “Green living is largely something of a myth. There is this middle class environmentalism where being green is part of the desired image. But another part of the desired image is to fly off skiing twice a year. And the carbon savings they make by not driving their kids to school will be obliterated by the pollution from their flights.” Some people even said they deserved such flights as a reward for their green efforts, he added.

Only a very small number of citizens matched their eco-friendly behaviour at home by refusing to fly abroad, Barr told a climate change conference at Exeter University yesterday.

The research team questioned 200 people on their environmental attitudes and split them into three groups, based on a commitment to green living. They found the longest and the most frequent flights were taken by those who were most aware of environmental issues, including the threat posed by climate change.

Questioned on their heavy use of flying, one respondent said: “I recycle 100% of what I can, there’s not one piece of paper goes in my bin, so that makes me feel less guilty about flying as much as I do.”

Barr said “green” lifestyles at home and frequent flying were linked to income, with wealthier people more likely to be engaged in both activities. He said: “The findings indicate that even those people who appear to be very committed to environmental action find it difficult to transfer these behaviours into more problematic contexts.”

Source: https://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/24/ethicalliving.recycling

However, to equate ethical consumption with the middle classes simply because they are the most engaged with it, is misleading and evasive. Below, we examine some of the possible reasons why the middle classes tend to be more associated with ethical consumption issues:

1.) Ethical products carry a price premium

Large corporations resort to sweatshops, pollutants and unfair labour practices not because they are intrinsically evil, but because they are focussed on bringing down prices by any means. Production costs naturally go up when workers are paid fair wages and are provided with humane working conditions – this rise is reflected in the final price to the consumer.

The middle classes are generally seen as having more of a disposable income than their working class counterparts, and are more likely to overlook the price premium. When someone is struggling to make ends meet, social justice often takes a backseat next to cost-cutting measures.

2.) Hunting down ethical products often requires prior knowledge of their existence

Ethically-produced and traded products are relatively new to the market, and as such exist on the periphery of mainstream consumerism. Not every supermarket stocks fair trade coffee for example, and locating ethically produced clothing may involve trawling from one shop to another or require shopping on-line.

However, this is improving. The 2007 Ethical Consumerism Report shows a 9% increase in the market for ethical products in the UK for example, bringing the total market value to £32.2 billion a year. Whilst compared with the total annual household consumer expenditure of more than £600 billion, the market still has a way to go – but there is substantial progress. The report shows that household expenditure on ethically produced goods and services has doubled in the past 5 years, with an average household spending in 2006 of £664 on ethical products: the sale of ethical clothing increased by a staggering 79%, ethical food and drink sales now contributes 5.1% of the total food and drink sales in the UK; Fairtrade products such as coffee, tea, bananas, etc., increased by 46% “driven in part by consumer awareness and greater availability”; organic food purchases increased by 18% and the market for sustainable fish increased at a staggering 224%!

3.) Ethical products are often sold through unconventional sales mediums

Ethical living is still a niche market, and the companies providing ethical goods and services tend to be much smaller operations than the major high-street brands. A number of products are only available online or at specialist shops. Internet shopping, for example, is far more popular amongst middle class Internet users than working class ones).

The above shows that there is a definite link between ethical shopping and the middle classes. However, this has to do more with price and accessibility than ethical products themselves or the desire to live ethically.