Oliver Chan | Being your best ethical self

There’s a type of organic shop and farmers market purist I find amusing – those with more than one bottle of tamari in the pantry, who brag about how they hated plastic waste before David Attenborough shamed it. Whenever I find myself at a dinner or party being talked at by such people about pesticide-free lavender oil, I’ll likely challenge them on the fact working class people are less likely to ‘shop ethically’, and prod them about why this might be.

More than a small minority will proceed to reveal their inner middle class armchair sociologist, lamenting that working class consumers are selfish and uneducated, citing obesity and smoking stats and putting full responsibility on them to self-educate and change their ‘irresponsible’ behaviour. Such attitudes reveal a lot about the capacity for choice people of different backgrounds have, and the limits of the ‘best self’ consumerism allow us to be.

As I see it, the reasons working class people might be less likely to shop ethically than their middle class – and beyond – counterparts are mainly about choice, or a lack of it.

“Such attitudes reveal a lot about the capacity for choice people of different backgrounds have.”

Consider working class parents doing low-paid wage jobs with irregular hours, or even second jobs while raising children and meeting the cost of rent or, if lucky, a mortgage. It’s cheaper to go to a supermarket and buy the much maligned white bread and tray eggs, or more time convenient to buy frozen foods than make an organic rye sourdough using a homemade starter.

Some lament: if cost is an issue then why do working class people indulge in pricey takeaways? This isn’t different than a middle class parent with an upcoming mortgage payment treating themselves to a rare vinyl purchase or extra pint of organic cherry cider – everyone indulges in comforting stress releases. Food ethics are a much easier indulgence for those with secure, salaried jobs that give them the time and money to partake.

Equally important, ethical consumerism is culturally paramount to a socially-liberal middle class identity. A.k.a cultural capital: the value of your cultural knowledge and tastes. Each class has a loose code of which tastes and behaviours are culturally valuable. Because the middle and upper classes dominate education, the arts and media professions, their tastes are celebrated as ‘high culture’ while those of the working class are still considered ‘low’.

This imbalance even allows high culture to borrow edgy snippets of working class culture. Young middle class people ironically adopt low-rent tastes like drinking PBR, tweeting about KFC, wearing track bottoms in public and watching rugby league, but this is more like children playing dress-ups; they can change their roles at a whim, having the mannerisms, accents, cultural knowledge and money to assert their credibility in different contexts..

Ethical consumerism, rather than pure altruism, can be a display of conspicuous consumption – a means for people to flaunt their cultural capital, as they do their choice of car, holiday destination or political values. The products, decor, music and clientele of typical organic stores and farmers markets scream middle class. Many working class shoppers would easily feel out of place and self-conscious of stares and sniggers from those shoppers bemused at exotic trespassers.

Essentially, we’ve turned ethics into ‘being your best ethical self.’ Focusing entirely on consumerism confuses it as the ultimate means for social change, where buying organic free range eggs will end climate change, boycotting a product whose CEO opposes gay marriage will end homophobia, and everyone wearing black outfits at the Oscars will banish sexual harassment from the entertainment industry.

Despite extolling green values, an individual focus excuses us from joint responsibility from the environment, instead content with making our own ethical purchases while putting the onus on others for not pulling their weight. We will readily punch down on the dumb, undeserving rednecks and thugs while mugging their fashion but justify it as karma credit for our good choices.

Rather than ineffective navel-gazing consumer rage snark, real passion for doing good can be channelled into demands for real political changes. Reforming animal welfare laws to ban the use of cages and overpopulated barnyards, removing the use of dangerous pesticides, especially where they pollute rivers and creating better official organic labelling guidelines could make large farms and supermarkets roll out free range and organic practices and products as the norm rather than a niche option. As larger companies, they’re more capable of absorbing extra costs than smaller shops. Laws banning plastic bags are commonplace in many cities and countries, so are easy to achieve.

“Ethics must cease to be a consumer luxury and become a natural part of being a citizen.”

Raising working class income via minimum wage hikes and better in-work education rights for better employment opportunities would allow more economic choice and free time to ponder ethics. Such changes would make ethical consumerism accessible at reasonable prices – whether in cheaper supermarkets, or pricier organic stores and farmers markets.

To achieve such goals, ethics must cease to be a consumer luxury and become a natural part of being a citizen. In this mindset, tamari would just be a mainstream supermarket choice and being plastic bag-free would no longer give you cool points or entitle you to punch down but simply be the behaviour of a regular law-abiding citizen.

Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.