How Can We Ethically Consume Under Capitalism?

Motley’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Molly Kavanagh, examines the dilemma of ethical consumption within the constraints of a capitalist society.

‘It’s okay, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism anyways” is a mantra that I usually hear in response to a person being told that their indulgence in fast fashion is harmful to the environment. The term “fast fashion” refers to inexpensive, often low-quality pieces of clothing that are rapidly mass-produced to cater to evolving fashion trends. Textile manufacturing is one of the leading contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, partly because fast fashion companies cut costs by outsourcing their labour to factories in developing countries, such as Bangladesh, where employees are paid less than minimum wage. Subsequently, clothing from Penneys, SHEIN, or Romwe has to be shipped internationally to Europe or North America via aircraft, leading to increased levels of air pollution. The flimsy, paper-thin blouses are manufactured using cheap, synthetic fibers containing microplastics, so when the unsold overstock is inevitably dumped into a landfill, those microplastics remain there for years, unable to decompose. 

“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” stems from a couple of core beliefs, one being that capitalism is an intrinsically flawed and inherently unethical economic system because it’s driven by profit, meaning that many companies are willing to exploit their workers or cause irreparable damage to the environment if it means cutting their manufacturing costs. The second belief is that the burden of responsibility for ending climate change should be placed on the one hundred corporations that are responsible for seventy percent of the world’s carbon emissions, rather than on the shoulder of ordinary members of the working class.  As in, rather than encouraging consumers to purchase reusable coffee mugs or adopt a vegan diet, we should target companies for manufacturing styrofoam cups and partaking in unsustainable agricultural practices in the first place. 


Sustainably manufactured clothing does exist. However, it’s incredibly expensive and most people, including myself, wouldn’t have thirty euro to spend on a shirt made from 100% recycled materials. That’s why I’m inclined to agree that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism- a businesses’ desire for sustainability and accessibility will always be second to their desire (and need) for profit. Similarly, it’s reductive and counterintuitive to criticize members of the working class for purchasing fast fashion, since it’s not their fault that the only clothing that is affordable and accessible to them also happens to be so harmful to the environment. 

As a result, thrift shopping has seen a recent surge in popularity, with apps like Depop becoming more widely used as second-hand shops and vintage kilo sales pop up all over the city. Our perception of thrift shopping has shifted from being a symbol of poverty and a source of shame for many to being something that is considered “trendy.” People aren’t necessarily thrifting out of necessity, but because older styles are coming back into fashion and thrifters are on the hunt for unique, one of a kind pieces that can’t be found in fast fashion retailers. But no industry is immune from exploitation or price gouging, with Depop sellers famously purchasing clothing for a couple of euro from thrift shops and reselling them for twenty euro or more. Similarly, it sometimes seems as if inexpensive charity shops are becoming more and more sparse, replaced by boutiques that sell vintage sweaters or jackets for twenty, thirty, or forty euro. While thrifting itself isn’t unethical, there’s no denying that thrift shopping is becoming gentrified. There have also been concerns that thrift shops might raise their prices due to increased demand for secondhand clothing, and that there might not be enough clothing left in the shops for those who truly need them.

The counterargument is that this would never happen because thrift stores often receive far more donations than they could ever feasibly sell. Fashion trends evolve so rapidly that people are buying and discarding clothes more than ever before, meaning that textile waste is quickly becoming a larger issue as garments that can’t be resold are cluttering our landfills that are already bursting at the seams. So if there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, perhaps the solution is just to stop consuming.  We spend so much time arguing back and forth about how we can ethically procure clothing without asking ourselves if we should even be procuring that clothing in the first place- maybe we should normalize having a more limited wardrobe, and not buying new clothes when we already have perfectly good clothes that we never wear. If we can agree that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, then we should understand that halting our consumption entirely is a perfectly valid solution. 

Saying “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is valid in  many instances, but used as an excuse in many other instances- you don’t need that blouse from Penney’s, and you don’t need those trousers from SHEIN. Similarly, you may not need that jacket from the second-hand shop, but considering that it might end up in a landfill if you don’t buy it, that consumption might be a little more ethical. But even though thrift stores receive a surplus of clothing doesn’t mean you should have free rein to snatch up every beautiful garment because it was a “great find” and you “couldn’t not get it”- sure, the people who actually rely on thrift shopping could buy something else, but low-income families shouldn’t have to wear the “ugly” or ill-fitting garments that are the wealthy-college-student-who-enjoys-thrifting’s rejects. Obviously, you can do whatever you’d like, but it’s food for thought. 

And we shouldn’t use the fact that ethical consumption under capitalism is impossible as an excuse to not at least try to help the environment in any way we can. COVID-19 has helped us understand the concept of exponential growth- the idea that a single case of COVID-19 can rapidly expand into thousands. It took sixty-seven days for the amount of worldwide COVID-19 cases to reach 100,000. The second 100,000 cases took 11 days, and the third 100,000 took only four days. So perhaps we could apply this same model to the spread of ideas, and how practicing more environmentally friendly habits could impact how the habits of your friends, and how their habits can impact the habits of their other friends, and so on. Perhaps there’s still hope, and resigning ourselves to failure, to the idea that nothing we do will help, so why even try, isn’t a very good mindset.