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Social and Economic Barriers to Ethical Living

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2811 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Is ethical living possible? What are the social and economic barriers which may prevent us from ensuring that everyone has a chance to live ‘ethically’?

Living ethically has been a longstanding part of human thought, with most of the current key ethical issues shaped by the over consumption of the worlds resources such as land, water and energy required for food production and the conflicting issues pertaining to growth in human population and food scarcity (Decker 2009, p. 579). The ethical questions of how we continue to sustain life amidst these challenges.  Ethical consumption being the purchasing and consumption that is considerate of societal and animal welfare, environmental concerns and development and Fairtrade issues such as labour practices (Ariztia T, Agloni, N & Pellandini-Simanyi 2018). 

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The question the essay will be exploring is who gets to choose and participate in living ethically? and can the individual when given the choice and opportunity to participate in ethical consumption make a difference? Particularly it will draw on what influences our choices and will look at the organic farming industry as a leading example of sustainable solutions. The essay will look specially at the point of view of the consumer and the discourse that emerges from history, media, societal values, religious beliefs and economic class (Thoughtco 2018). These discourses shape what we know, how we think and what we have access to. These inform our choices, which are representative of self and community identity. The essay will not be unpacking food habits pre-industrialisation/pre- globalisation but stating that choices significantly differed and were incredibly limited compared to contemporary times, nor will it unpack the ethical considerations farmers and corporate organisations should be ethically responsible for. 

Sociologists have played a role in the study of food ethics by researching the role of globalisation and its significant consequences of the discourses that affect food habits within individuals and communities as these contribute to the development and sustainability of our societies.  Sociologists look at societal changes by examining individual consumption choices and forming connection of moral contribution vs conscious intent (Sirian 2012). Sociologists perspectives on morality supports the understanding of consumption, who is the ethical consumer? and why do they choose what they choose? The vegetarian may choose to not eat meat, potentially based on diet and improving their health and/or the repercussion on the environment and/or an uneasiness for animal cruelty (Deckers 2009). The sociological concept referred to as ‘Mcdonaldization’ was created by American sociologists George ritzer, this notion creates an impersonal world that places significant value of efficiency,rationality, and control.  Ritzer states that too much of this creates spaces that breakdown individual freedom of choice and individuality which enables people to conform to one way of being (McDonaldization 2003.  This theory has been used by sociologists to explore how individual freedoms. Inshort “Mcdonaldization” theory is the opposite of ethical living. The more we consume, the more we want, regardless of how we create the products we consume.


The history of ethics has its roots shaped by authoritive institutions such as religious and academic spaces in particular philosophy, who have claimed access to a divine way of being.  Those who hold secular ideologies, that being non-spiritual, non-religious also fundamentally claim ethical discovery. Historical ethical mentors predominantly have been from these fields and have provided humanity with guidance on how to live (Kitcher P 2013). A range of different disciplines such as Anthropology have focused on explaining the motives, values and reasons that influence ethical consumption and the ethical consumer choice (Kitcher P 2013, p. 394).  These choices and dilemma’s have stemmed from free trade policies which were created in the 70’s that supported globalisation of products by removing regulatory barriers.

Free trade increased a nation’s economic growth, this model was not based on moral decisions, as with it came cheap labour (usually by marginalised groups), unsafe working conditions and the overuse and damage of natural resources (Wilkinson 2015).  Free trade has its national interests at heart, regardless of moral obligations to ‘other’.  Large scale food production saw significant changes to the environment, issues of land usage such as deforestations, the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming has surpassed global transportation emissions. These all have significant negative effects on overall global climate change (Deckers 2009).  Ethical ways of living and who delivers those messages has seen a shift, growth and change over time. Celebrity chefs are one of those that deliver key messages of ethical food choices due to their large scale audiences, their messages are highly influential as they have become cultural icons specially within Western middleclass societies. Chefs partnering with larger organisations such as Coles and Woolworths provides another platform to influence. Jamie Oliver a renowned chef has utilised this space to spread notions of ethical consumerism, he motioned with Woolworths who agreed to phase out the shelving of cage eggs by 2018and also utilised television where he replicated the way male chicks are killed. Oliver mentioned that the shelves where cleared of caged eggs the morning after (Lewis & Huber 2015) There is an assumption that marketing and television provides information that will stimulate ‘better’ choices. “We imitate what we see in real life and on screen and that’s where we take our social cues from” (Joy 2012, p.88) Using media as a vehicle to inspire ethical living such as “good planet media” whose simple idea of using media, film and television as a way to spread messages to influence societal norms and shift cultural thinking (Joy 2012). This is a great way to inform and provide access to education across social and economic barriers. Gone are the days when deciding what food to eat was based only on local resources, choice now comes with a whole array of new questions, options and ethical food dilemmas.

Industrialisation and globalisation have been major contributors of change, there are many more choices, their choice of what to consume or what not to consume affects others. The 70’s and 80’s saw a growing ethical and quality food production “stamp” which reinforced societal attention to the environment, labour conditions and animal welfare, called Fair trade. The fair trade movement set standards and polices that defined contemporary benchmarks of our world food systems and become a contributing factor in decisions and choices. It incorporates the labour rights of all and the care of the environment whilst being reflective of the responsibility of all involved, from producers to the consumers (Wilkinson 2015). One of the main differences is that there is usually a higher price attached to food products that have been produced under fair trade due to more expensive costs to produce the product ie wage costs (Deckers 2009?). Surian (2012) discusses that food costs play a significant role in mediating food choice, particular lower social economic groups who often use their resources to pay for other living essentials such as housing. The assumptions that can be made is that those who have less financial resources would be less likely to pay more money for a similar product they can get for significantly less,  especially if there is no information about how the product differs. Who gets to live ethically is determinant on economic and social withstanding’s and can be based on the notion of altruism, we should do the most good we can. Kitcher states that human altruism “still cramps and twists the lives of billions”(2013). The privilege of choice, should those that have the opportunity to choose ethical products, be made to? Should the choice to choose otherwise, be removed?

To choose what food you consume and to know and understand why you choose, is the privilege of education. Food choices and consciously deciding what you will and what you will not purchase is a privilege of economic freedom. However, Ariztia,Agloni and Pellandini-Sim anyi (2018) argue that ethical consumption definitions often are undertheorized in regards to the relation between individual choice and consumption. They note that there is a strong need to focus on the moral underpinnings of consumption practices and that these then have a flow on effect to ethical decisions that are created. Therefore suggesting that ethical practice is generated from moral thought and not the other way around.  Kitcher (2013) mentions how our lives are “hostage to the distribution” of fundamental resources and dominated by continuing historical influential traditions such as religion who claim a particular way of living is the “right way” to exist. (5, p 15). This is backed up by Ariztia,Agloni and Pellandini-Sim anyi (2018) who comment that individual choice is contingent on infrastructures that goes beyond the individual.  This challenge and explores the notion of “choice”, that even though the ethical consumer is a powerful medium can individuals and their ethical choices lead to a collective change when ‘choice’ is possibly a mirage? Their sentiments represent that our choices are not endless, they are confined (Pottinger 3, p. 661).

Based on economic, cultural, historic, social factors there are barriers to living ethically that  have been inspired by religious and historic customs. Societal values and norms also place a hierarchy on what is considered more important than other matters, some countries focus predominately on climate change and the environment, others on building economic stability and growth. (ref) Class and education also create spaces that educate certain ideologies based on what is considered the “right” way to live. Education institutions as mentioned by Kitcher (2013) impose barriers to freedom of thought and all too often promote a biased concept of what is worth pursuing. The question of why we should choose ethical consumption has some very straight forward rationalities. There is extensive evidence of inequality between countries which results in abuse of human rights. These stats provide an indication of the unbalance of resources and power and also provides a form of reasoning as to why conscious ethical decision making should be rule not the exception.

  • 925 Million people do not have enough to eat
  • 2/3 of the worlds hungry live in just 7 countries
  • 1.7 billion lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion suffer from water borne diseases each year (Kitcher 2013, p. 15)

The global and local impact of our food choices and what we consumer hold great consequences for which we live, to communities, locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Access to food is an individual’s right but the choice to consume food ethically is limited when your resources to access food in the first place is also limited.

The more consumers are aware of their consumption choices’ and the impacts of those choices, the higher the possibility that they could influence environmental, political and social spaces. The ethical consumer has the power to shift and demand alternative ways of doing and being that are more in-line to their ethical viewpoints (Lewis & Huber 2015, p. 474).

The Thai government have strongly reinforced and encouraged organic farming. Organic produce benefits are not only health related due to non-chemical input but also keeps in mind, animal and societal welfare along with environmental issues. These benefits often are not visually seen by the consumer. Media and government polices have educated and influenced these sustainable methods of food production which have supports and sustains a self-sufficient economy (Sriwaranun, Gan, Lee and Cohen’s (2014).  Sriwaranun, Gan, Lee and Cohen’s (2014) research stated that most organic vegetables were commonly 100-170% more than other products. The research also unpacks interesting information about who and who doesn’t purchase organic produce.

  • 51,7% of the interviewed people says that they are not able to buy it because of its more expensive pricing.
  • being privileged by people between 30 and 49 years of age regardless of their education (Sriwaranun, Gan, Lee and Cohen’s 2014).

Organic farming and consumption of organic food is one way of providing an antidote to ‘McDonaldisation’ (Pottinger 2013). Kitcher (2013) discusses weather living ethical living is possible for all quite simply states that it is possible, for all to be feed, to have shelter, education  but that is only possible if the size of the human population does not exceed superlative numbers. Kitcer does not go on to say what those numbers would be.

In conclusion globalisation and industrialisation has impacted our natural resources and have abused basic human rights by taking advantage of vulnerable minority groups. Due to this global frameworks and national policies have come into place such as fair trade, which ensures a minimal ethical living standard that the ethical consumer consciously takes in reflection within their everyday choices. Media, film and television and other forms of information sharing has seen a growth in moral and environmental concern,  these mediums influence consumers choice. Although individual behaviours have a limited impact on change but without the individual we would have not created the fair trade movement. More work needs to be done for those groups that do not get to participant in ethical living due to their economic status within societies. I do not believe treating all people equally equates to equality, opportunities need to be provided to those who do not have the privledge to consume ethically.  If the individual can shift societal norms and gain a collective concern to shift individual norms this would form a rule and the exception would be the alternative way of living. Individual behaviours and attitudes can form part of the collective,



  • Ariztia T, Agloni, N & Pellandini-Simanyi, L 2018, ‘Ethical living: relinking ethics and consumption through care in Chile and Brazil’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 69, no. 3, pp. 391-411.   
  • Cole, N 2018, What is discource? Thoughtco, viewed 5 October 2018, < https://www.thoughtco.com/discourse-definition-3026070>.
  • Deckers, J 2009, ‘Vegetarianism, Sentimental or Ethical?’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 22, pp. 573-597.  
  • Joy, R 2012, ‘Good planet media: Inspiring the shift to sustainable, healthy and ethical               living through media’, Goinggreen, p./pp. 88- 89.
  • Kitcher, P 2013, ‘Experiments of living: an ethical stance for the human future’, The Humanist, vol. 73, no. 1, pp.
  • Lewis, T & Huber, A 2015, ‘A Revolution in an Eggcup?’, Food, Culture & Society, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 289 – 307.  
  • Pottinger, L 2013, ‘Ethical Food Consumption and the City plans’, Geography Compass, vol.               10, no. 1, pp. 659–668. 
  • Sirian, A 2012, ‘Unlearning food predictability’, Italian Sociological Review, vol. 2, pp. 116-123.  
  • Sriwaranum Y, Gan C, Lee M & Cohen D 2014,’Consumers willingness to pay for organic products in Thailand’, Emerald Insight, Vol 42, No. 5, pp.480 – 510
  • Wilkinson, J 2015, ‘Food security and the global agrifood system: Ethical issues in historical and sociological perspective’, Global Food Security, vol. 7, pp. 9-14. 
  • 2003,‘What is McDonaldization’, Mcdonaldization, viewed 20th October 2018<https://www.mcdonaldization.com/whatisit.shtml


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