Ethical consumerism is buying things (when they are needed at all) that are made ethically. Generally, this means without harm to or exploitation of humans, animals or the natural environment. This can take on the following forms:
- Positive buying — favoring ethical products, and businesses that operate on principles based primarily on benefit for the greater good rather than self-interest, allowing for business self-interest only for the perpetuation of doing general good outside of self.
- Moral boycott — negative purchasing and company-based purchasing.
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 Spending as morality
Certain trust criteria, e.g. creditworthiness or implied warranty, are considered to be part of any purchasing or sourcing decision. However, these terms refer to broader systems of guidance that would, ideally, cause any purchasing decision to disqualify offered products or services based on non-price criteria that do not affect the functional, but rather moral, liabilities of the entire production process. Paul Hawken, a proponent of Natural Capitalism, refers to "comprehensive outcomes" of production services as opposed to the "culminative outcomes" of using the product of such services. Often, moral criteria are part of a much broader shift away from commodity markets towards a deeper service economy where all activities, from growing to harvesting to processing to delivery, are considered part of the value chain and for which consumers are "responsible".
Some argue that "Shopping is more important than voting", and that the disposition of money is the most basic role we play in any system of economics. Some theorists believe that it is the clearest way that we express our actual moral choices, i.e., if we say we care about something but continue to buy from parties that have a high probability of risk of harm or destruction of that thing, we don't really care about it, we are practicing a form of simple hypocrisy.
 Positive buying
Positive buying means favoring ethical products, be they fair trade, cruelty free, organic, recycled, re-used, or produced locally. This option is arguably the most important since it directly supports progressive companies.
 Standards and labels
A number of standards and labels have been introduced to induce positive buying, such as:
- Social Accountability 8000
- organic food
- Organic Trade Association
- Co-op America
- shade-grown coffee
- kosher (religious standard)
- halaal (religious standard)
- free-range poultry
- grass fed beef
- dolphin safe fish
- FSC-certified ("environmentally friendly") wood
- Product Red
- Rainforest Alliance certified
Along with disclosure of ingredients, some mandatory labelling of origins of clothing or food is required in all developed nations. This practice has been extended in some developing nations, e.g., in China where every item of clothing carries the name, phone number and fax number of the factory where it was made so a buyer can inspect its conditions. And, more importantly, to prove that the item was not made by "prison labor", use of which to produce export goods is banned in most developed nations. Such labels have also been used for boycotts, as when the merchandise mark Made in Germany was introduced in 1887.
These labels serve as tokens of some reliable validation process, some instructional capital, much as does a brand name or a nation's flag. They also signal some social capital, or trust, in some community of auditors that must follow those instructions to validate those labels.
Over time, some theorists suggest, the amount of social capital or trust invested in nation-states (or "flags") will continue to decrease, and that placed in corporations (or "brands") will increase. This can only be offset by retrenched national sovereignty to reinforce shared national standards in tax, trade, and tariff laws, and by placing the trust in civil society in such "moral labels". These arguments have been a major focus of the anti-globalization movement, which includes many broader arguments against the amoral nature of markets as such. However, the economic school of Public Choice Theory pioneered by James M. Buchanan has offered counter-arguments based on economic demonstration to this theory of 'amoral markets' versus 'moral governments'.
Moral boycott is the practice of avoiding or boycotting products which a consumer believes to be associated with unethical behavior.
An individual can choose to boycott a product. Alternatively, the decision may be the application of criteria reflective of a morality (or, in the terminology of ethics, a theory of value) to any purchasing decisions.
Reasons for products boycotts include
Examples include corporations that
- are perceived to espouse unethical behavior by one of its subsidiaries
- investing a portion of their profits in, for example, the arms industry
Such boycotts can cause great damage to reputations, not to mention loss of profits, and has, in part, led to the development of the concept of corporate social responsibility.
- Made in Germany
- Consumer boycotts of South Africa over apartheid. These boycotts were mirrored in state policy over time, and contributed to the fall of the white regime.
GfK NOP, the market research group, has made a five-country study of consumer beliefs about the ethics of large companies. The report is described in a Financial Times article published on February 20, 2007 entitled 'Ethical consumption makes mark on branding' , and was followed up by an online debate/discussion hosted by FT.com (). The countries surveyed were Germany, the USA, Britain, France and Spain. More than half of respondents in Germany and the US believed there is a serious deterioration in standards of corporate practice. Almost half of those surveyed in Britain, France and Spain held similar beliefs.
About a third of respondents told researchers they would pay higher prices for ethical brands though perception of various companies ethical or unethical status varied considerably from country to country.
The most ethically perceived brands were: The Co-op (in the UK), Coca Cola (in the US), Danone (in France), Adidas (in Germany) and Nestlé (in Spain). Coca Cola, Danone, Adidas and Nestlé did not appear anywhere in the UK's list of 15 most ethical companies. Nike appeared in the lists of the other four countries but not in the UK's list.
In the UK, the Co-operative Bank has produced an Ethical Consumerism Report (formerly the Ethical Purchasing Index) since 2001. The report measures the market size and growth of a basket of 'ethical' products and services, and valued UK ethical consumerism at GBP29.3 billion (USD59.1 billion) in 2005.
 Related concepts
 Conscious consuming
Conscious Consuming is a social movement that based around increased awareness of the impact of purchasing decisions on the environment and the consumers health and life in general. It is also concerned with the effects of media and advertising on consumers. Many aspects of Conscious Consuming have been practiced throughout the world but not in a cohesive form.
As a result of organizations such as Adbusters and the Center for a New American Dream, the Conscious Consuming movement began in Boston in the summer of 2003 when a group of people gathered together and planned an alternative gift fair, "Gift It Up!" In the fall of 2004, another group of Bostonians formed a group named "Conscious Consuming"and began meeting to discuss a broad range of topics, from the environmental impact of consumption to the effect of media and advertising. The memberships quickly overlapped and in 2005, the groups merged into Conscious Consuming.
Conscious consuming has its roots in voluntary simplicity, in which people re-evaluate their work/life balance in order to spend more of their time and money on the things that matter to them. As people work less, there is more time for connecting with family and friends, volunteerism, hobbies, and community service. A natural off-shoot of working less is spending less. Instead of spending time and money shopping, people engaging in voluntary simplicity buy less. They get goods using web sites like craigslist, trade with friends, make do with what they have, or hit yard sales. When they do purchase something new, the decision to buy is made consciously. A would-be shopper asks, "Is this item made in line with my values? Am I supporting the local economy? Are the people who produce this item treated and compensated fairly? Is this item built to last?" As a result of these questions, conscious consumers find themselves supporting organic agriculture, fair-trade and sweat-shop free products, and local and independent businesses.
The broader regulation system within which corporate behaviour is in part subordinated to consumer demand functions obeying both logics of individualism and solidarity is referred to as Consumarchy. It lends itself to economic, political and philosophical analyses. The political branch of consumarchy is also known as political consumerism.
 Alternative giving
In response to an increasing demand for ethical consumerism surrounding gift giving occasions, charities have promoted an alternative gift market, in which charitable contributions are made on behalf of the gift "recipient". The "recipient" receives a card explaining the selected gift, while the actual gift item (frequently agricultural supplies or domestic animals) is sent to a family in a poor community.
 Problems with the theory
One major issue with the concept of "ethical consumerism" is that it is based on the idea that we, potential buyers of goods, are defined as consumers. It is dangerous for a community of action-oriented people to limit their places in society to that of consumers only, instead of people with the free will to take more direct action. We are, after all, people, not consumers. If we see ourselves as consumers (or a collection of things we have purchased), then our corporate-dominated culture has already defeated us (and the poor people in sweat shops who will continue making shoes for the rest of Americans). Our responsibility does not end after we stop ourselves from buying the new Air Jordans. We need to stop Nike in order to end their abuse.