There’s nothing like a global crisis to re-evaluate the impact of our ways, inciting deeper retrospect for the life-cycle and labour of what we consume. In this piercing report by ethical and sustainable business strategist, Sue Barrett, we investigate if and how the global pandemic has reinvigorated the rise of ethical consumerism.

It is hard to ignore health or environmental decline, as these touch all of us in tangible ways. Because of this, narratives around organic produce, plastic waste, and recycling have made converts of many consumers. However, strengthening local economy has until now lacked the urgency or ubiquitous impact of these more pronounced issues. Lockdowns affecting global imports and domestic production have helped emphasize the importance of ethical economic values as an essential part of a sustainable equation. If we overlook the welfare and ethics of regional economy, the consequences will have immediate and long-term effects for us all.

Like other aspects of consumer governance, our purchasing habits have far-reaching influence on the lives of people around the world. Like impoverished women in India who manufacture cheap garments for global export, now left unemployed by the pandemic. However, we can force businesses which hide behind the sanctity of omission, to uphold ethical standards of transparency and equality with our wallets. Small and local businesses are important to invest our dollars in, as they often represent family heritage and livelihood. Whilst startups herald opportunities of employment and innovation for a healthy economy. But all need our input to ensure ethical adherence.

Fortunately, a boom in locally sourced or made products and produce because of coronavirus, has the potential to motivate consumer interest and sway in ethical business, as Sue explains…

The pandemic has heightened our awareness about how we live, work, engage and consume. 

But has it made us more ethical consumers?

First, let’s define ethical consumer: 

Ethical consumerism is a form of political activism based on the premise that purchasers in markets consume not only goods but also, implicitly, the process used to produce them. (Britanica)

We should look at the entire supply chain from sourcing of materials, to manufacturing, distribution and how we purchase, use, and dispose of our goods to see if it has been done under what is deemed ethical. 

I don’t think many of us are there yet by that definition.

Maybe, a better question is: Has COVID made us more aware as consumers and citizens? 

I believe it has, which is the pathway to us being more aware about the ethical implications of what we buy and consume. 

We’ve become conscious of where our products and services come from, who makes them and supplies them, and how workers are affected in their production. COVID made us realize that the bulk of our purchases originated from China and more diverse supply chains are less risky. 

COVID helped us rediscovered the importance of local communities, especially in big cities. So when we saw our neighborhood businesses in trouble and people losing jobs during lockdown, we bought locally. Coronavirus played a pivotal role in changing consumer behaviour, highlighting the interconnectedness of businesses, jobs in local community, our prosperity and its fragility. This has seen the continued rise in Australians buying Australia Made products during the pandemic.  

We learnt the importance and value of people working in essentials services: supermarkets, warehousing & distribution, healthcare, cleaning, education, and IT. Learning about workers’ wage exploitation when we realized many Australian fruit picking jobs weren’t being paid at award rates with many farmers having previously relied on backpackers and cheap foreign labour. Or how the global fashion industry looked the other way, denying any responsibility as it sent thousands of women and their families in developing nations into poverty because their work dried up with no one providing wage subsidies or support. COVID shone the light on issues in supply chains and exposed the unethical behaviour of businesses who continue to exploit workers and profit at their expense. It showed us who’s really paying for that $2 t-shirt or $1 punnet of strawberries. 

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

The pandemic raised our awareness about climate change as we witnessed the significant drop in air pollution when most of the world stopped driving fossil-fueled vehicles when we went into lockdown. We become aware about the cost of energy to power our homes 24/7 and the importance of the internet and technology to keep us connected highlighting the value of reliable, cheap, renewable energy to further reduce the impact of CO2 on the atmosphere and keep us powered. 

COVID helped us understand the true cost of things and their real value. Homemade is on the rise in crafts, hobbies, and home cooking, as is the importance of family and relationships.

All these factors are contributing to accelerated changes in what and how we buy, consume and relate. 

So are we there yet when it comes to being ethical consumers?

Some are by the strict definition however, for too long ‘ethical consumer’ has been limited to products we buy across supply chains, and while that’s very important, it’s a narrow definition that doesn’t encompass all that we are as humans.

We are now more aware as citizens and how we can make ethical purchasing decisions.

COVID has highlighted that we are more than consumers. 

And that’s a wonderful thing.

About the Author: Sue Barrett is the founder and CEO of Barrett Consulting Group, a business consulting and education firm specialising in Sales (strategy, process, education and culture), the online sales education platform Sales Essentials, and the Selling Better Movement. Sue lives by the philosophy that selling is everybody’s business, and everybody lives by selling something.

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.