Ethical Consumerism 

Posted June 7, 2021 by Faith Hall

Faith Hall, Miami University: Project Dragonfly GFP

2020 was a year filled with countless challenges that had sweeping impacts on almost every aspect of our lives. Job loss, sickness, quarantine… It was a year where many of us had to narrow our focus to the things in our immediate vicinity and control. With a change in focus, it can be really easy to forget and overlook other issues outside that view. Some of the areas most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic has been wildlife conservation and environmental sustainability. Many international conservation organizations rely on funds from ecotourism and from donations from accredited zoological institutions, however with travel restrictions and zoo closures funding has been extremely limited. With these restrictions in place and varying financial situations, it can seem really daunting and difficult to get involved in conservation right now. However there is one really easy way to make a difference without having to travel or make major changes in your daily life. 

Ethical consumerism (sometimes called conscious capitalism) is the idea that you “vote with your dollars.” It takes the concept of supply and demand and adds in an ethical and sustainable component. By buying ethical products you’re showing an increased demand for them, which can have huge impacts on conservation globally.  One of the biggest international examples when it comes to ethical consumerism is palm oil. 

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Palm oil can be found in a really wide range of products including food and cosmetics. It’s traditionally harvested using unsustainable “slash and burn” techniques where plantations will tear down large areas of rainforest, and burn the remaining stumps in order to make space to plant oil palm trees. This practice is considered unsustainable because there is constantly new deforestation and little to no environmental offset (like planting new native rainforest trees). By buying products with traditional palm oil, you’re inadvertently supporting unsustainable deforestation. However, if you instead opt to make a small personal change and buy products that contain sustainably harvested palm oil, you’re supporting sustainable practices that have a positive impact on the land and animals in that area.  The difference between traditional and sustainable palm oil is where they plant their trees. Using Indonesia as an example, before palm oil, rubber was their major export and rubber farms were using the unsustainable slash and burn technique to clear large areas of rainforest. Sustainable palm oil plantations now repurpose these already cleared lands in order to plant their palms, so there is no additional deforestation… in fact many plantations replant rainforest trees to offset current and past deforestation, or leave strips of trees to act as wildlife corridors. Products will sometimes specifically list “sustainably harvested palm oil” in their ingredient list or have specific logos on their label, but not all specify that their palm oil is sustainable; check out a previous blog post here with a shopping guide.

You can also drive ethical practices domestically by making educated decisions in the grocery store. Eggs are a staple in most households, but there is a lot of misinformation about the different types of eggs available. Cage free, free range, and pasture-raised all sound the same, but there’s a huge distinction between them and those terms are unfortunately often used to mislead consumers into thinking they’re making an ethical choice. Besides raising your own chickens, or supporting local farms, pasture-raised eggs are the most ethical choice. While “normal” caged eggs are cheaper right now, by buying pasture-raised eggs you’re showing a demand for ethical practices and as they become industry standards, the costs will naturally lower. When it comes to buying animal products, one thing to look for in the grocery store is the “certified humane” logo. 

At what cost?

Source: Vital Farms

The idea of paying more for an ethical product when there are cheaper options available can sometimes deter people from making ethical choices. With normal eggs being around $1.50/dozen while pasture-raised eggs are about $4.50/dozen, many people can’t justify spending $3 more for the “ethical” option. Having the ability to make that specific switch is a luxury, but that doesn’t mean only a certain demographic can be ethical consumers. Some ethical products have increased cost, but not all, and that’s why it’s important to do your research. Jif is a major peanut butter brand that uses ethically sourced palm oil and at Target a 16 oz jar costs $2.39, while Skippy costs $2.79 and uses traditionally harvested palm oil. Alternatively, there are brands (like Kroger) that don’t contain any palm oil, and a 16 oz jar of Kroger brand peanut butter is only $1.50. You can make an ethical choice, and save money! 

SO how can you take action and become an ethical consumer?

  • Look at your food labels! Buy products that have the RSPO or Rainforest Alliance Certified logos, or specifically state “sustainable harvested palm oil” in their ingredient list.
  • The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has a fantastic online resource (and app!) dedicated to palm oil education, and provides a guide for which brands use ethically sourced palm oil.
  • Look for the “Certified Humane” or “Certified Fair Trade” logo on products such as eggs, and clothing.
  • Become an educated consumer, and continue to do your own research.
  • If your current financial situation prevents you from being able to make these changes, you can continue to make a difference by educating others!

Learn more about bonobos and how being an ethical consumer can help them survive!