To operate within a society, one typically operates within an economy as well. Each is somewhat — if not extensively or totally — conflated in such a way as to make participation in either necessary for participation in the other. This marriage of society and economy has the effect of imbuing economic activity with social and political meaning. It is also the case that the economy and the society each retain the capacity to shape each other. Economic forces may change the social geography of a particular locale, just as social change may effect systems of the economy. Exchanging $3 for a cup of coffee cannot, in this synthesized economy-society scenario, be divorced from certain social implications. Where and how I collected $3 in the first place is an important question to address. Where my $3 will find its way to next should as well be considered. Ideally, the onus of ethical consumption and spending is not solely the responsibility of the individual; regulatory agencies may strive to enforce rules and precipitate changes in standards for industry practice in order that an individual may consume ethically with ease. However, in our neoliberal political landscape, deregulation is the law of the land. Resultantly, social responsibility is increasingly tangible in the dollars we spend (and don’t spend).
It is important to consider how one comes to possess money. Interestingly, research shows that one’s income will largely be determined by the zip code in which they were born. Communities are almost uniformly segregated by wealth and simultaneously by other factors such as years of schooling, familial wealth, race and age. Therefore, the money we come to possess is predictive of a social geography and a wealth gradient, both historically and contemporarily. Obviously, the privileged among us will accrue more money than the less privileged of us — more money than is necessary for their comfortable survival even — while the poorest of us will live hand-to-mouth, working tirelessly if employed or tirelessly seeking employment if not. Seemingly, many of us will receive a salary of certain magnitude for no other reason than where and to whom we were born. While a tempting refutation to this assertion may be that the higher salaried of us must have worked harder and become more educated than the lesser salaried of us, consider that a wealthy teenager putting forth an average academic and professional effort will more than likely far out-earn a poor teenager putting forth the same effort.
Given that, to at least a moderate extent, the money I accrue in my lifetime is not reflective of anything other than the circumstances of my birth, it would seem that I have some obligation to disseminate any excess wealth I accrue in order that it supplement the incomes of those less fortunate. Such a rigid discipline of wealth generation and redistribution seems impossible to negotiate with my desire for the seemingly superfluous objects and services I spend money on. That I willingly pay for Adidas Ultra Boost shoes when a cheaper pair would suffice to protect my feet has much to do with the influence of ideology and commodity fetishism. Certain social pressures and prevailing aesthetic preferences propagated by clothing companies themselves capitalize on my desire to assimilate with my peers, resulting in my cruel decision to allot over $100 to Adidas in exchange for a pair of shoes rather than a charitable organization such as UNICEF.
In addition to the possible moral implications of spending on oneself while others are in need, spending in such a way that rewards unsustainable business practice may be problematic as well. A regimen of ethical consumerism will forgo consumption of those goods and services which are unsustainable, as well as avoid companies, corporations and distributors that rely on unethical labor practices or employ unsustainable modes of production. In this sense, an ethical consumer “votes with their dollar” by supporting those businesses and products which are deemed sustainable and ethical.
Consuming in a late-stage capitalist society is inherently problematic, and navigating the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by the social implications of consumption can be tireless and unfruitful. However, by maintaining a constant interrogation of one’s purchasing habits and regularly making donations to charitable organizations (and one’s political campaigns of choice), consumption under capitalism can be slightly less morally corrupt.