Ethical Consumption Zine Art Style Title blog post

Ethical Consumption is Least Consumption

Ecological anxiety is a part of growing up now; how do we consider our environment?
The ethics of what and how much can be consumed must consider both the consumer and the consumed. Currently, consumption is treated as a right of the consumer— or even further by media and businesses, as an integral part of the economy and human development. Any deviation from these principles carries with it the problem of application. However, if one were to create new principles of consumption, the following could be a start: what is ethical to consume is necessary and least impactful to the world’s potential.

Ethical Consumption Zine Art Style Title blog post

Much of the conversation about ethical consumption and its producers surround ideas of profit and the amount we can use without doing harm. This has led to the philosophical ideas born from this dynamic working from the most potential productivity or consumption towards less abuse with increased awareness of environmental consequences. Paul Taylor’s essay, “The Ethics and Respect for Nature”, argues, “A…major source of the idea of human superiority is the Judeo-Christian concept of the Great Chain of Being. Humans are superior to animals and plants because their Creator has given them a higher place on the chain.” Much earlier philosophers than he had made this connection, even Locke, who claimed man’s dominion over the earth.

“This drive to conquer nature should, itself, be conquered.”

The West’s assumed ownership and maximal use of the world is a spell for ruin. While an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God might make an excellent steward and producer/consumer in the world, assuming humanity to have that same capacity affords hubris in action. Modern production cannot effectively know all the consequences of its actions and weigh them against its use in a utilitarian calculus. Each generation tells a story to the last of how the bygone era’s industry was folly by way of pollution, poison, or overproduction—a fact not known completely in its time. Instead, the industry is tasked with finding new ways to consume maximally in a way that appeases the conditions of awareness at any given time. The idea of progress to this awareness, too, is a mirage since it takes place in the way things are produced, rather than the extent of the resource or the resource itself being used because it is assumed all is fairly used if available. 

photo of an industrial factory emitting smoke

The counterbalance to this is a true societal reflection upon what goods are necessary to have. Humankind doesn’t need much to survive. It is settled within nutritional science that meat is both unnecessary and harmful to us to the extent it is consumed. The less environmentally taxing proposition of plant-based diets with low meat consumption would decrease agricultural land use by 75%. Let these lands back to nature after the necessary cleanup of debris and the problem of invasive species and one would witness a regrowth and healing of swaths of the world over. This is but one movement in the orientation switch from maximal to minimal consumption. 

Another form of consumption that would be markedly diminished following an upending of its philosophy would be the oil and gas industry. The automobile marked a steep increase in demand for oil products which rode the wave of increasing uses found for it. A system that was to ask what is necessary for our transportation, and what might be the least we can do to solve it, would steer clear of any individuated responsibility of travel using carbon. A car for nearly every American increases the likelihood of casual resource use. Each person driving on the road increases the amount of oil used. This means that using cars is not only inefficient but errs on the side of lackadaisical resource use.

“If ethical consumption does not replace the maximal, eventually, humanity will have no choice but a minimal and desolate existence beyond what even they may have been able to fathom.”

In place of private car ownership, train transportation can answer the problem of the need for travel and shipping with substantial cost decreases, potentially eradicating the need for oil and gas entirely in favor of electricity. Many other countries operate more public transport than America does and show its value in how easy it is for the population to get around. Trains can be faster and more efficient than millions of cars and much safer for consumers and the environment.

Civil engineering rework would be necessary to make the switch from car dependence. Towns will become denser, space will be more communal than today, and rural life will be for those willing to live off the grid and isolated for long periods of time. The drive for constant interconnectivity and sprawling of productive, residential, and corporate spaces has been steadily turning the world into the image of our own work, laying nature beneath the business of paved development. This drive to conquer nature should, itself, be conquered.

trees on a dark forest

 Today’s marketed environmentally friendly products are often those that break apart easily and must be replaced. Interestingly enough, this follows the logic train of maximal consumption but causes even more rampant resource use in transport, production, and waste management. The proverbial adage that things aren’t built like they were before is a feature of planned obsolescence, a firstly economy-centered imperative that grew justifications as time has gone on to include its purported environmental good. Its good is limited to its waste potential being minimized, but its potential use is also decreased while inversely lifting the strain on resources to upkeep the churning industry. 

After finding what is necessary and forging the technologies of production in its image, the next question would be that of what is ethical to consume unnecessarily, to which, no principle can truly be applied universally. Locke was correct in stating that if everyone consumed as much as he could, albeit, in a preindustrial world, there would befall no ruin by overconsumption. Likewise, in an ethically industrious world, one where only needs are produced in necessary quantities and no individual uses these powers for personal means, consumption only scales to individual ability with its own individual consequences hardly coalescing into broader drains on resources. 

“There was no other outcome after the path was set and walked to take all that was possible to take”

The problem remains so that wants and desires catered to today would be almost unimaginable in such an ethical system. Animal-based foods, especially meat, would be scarce, if not extinct. House construction and roads and transportation would each be reimagined to serve the best interests of the people using them while remaining as compact and low footprint as possible. Niche products and trinkets mass-produced like accessories and video games would be entirely created independently. This is unfortunately a consequence of having spoiled ourselves: to see our solution as none other than a rejection of modern comfort and embrace of nature’s rights is a dreadful proposition most commonly shirked completely. There was no other outcome after the path was set and walked to take all that was possible to take.

To answer the question of ethical consumption is to question what makes our consumption unethical today. Upon reading what philosophies have brought us to where we are today, the highest abstract answer is our prioritization of maximal use and profit. Restructuring how we consume from this abstract and played-out idea must be done at its root abstraction, then measured back to ground-level practicalities. The problem with this solution is that spoiled descendants of decadence fear the lack of what we have now. Every problem spells its answer, but it seems we are much happier spelling out the high-minded abstractions in the clouds than making the change when it isn’t forced. If ethical consumption does not replace the maximal, eventually, humanity will have no choice but a minimal and desolate existence beyond what even they may have been able to fathom.

man helping another person
Photo by cottonbro studio on

 1Locke, John. “Second Treatise on Government.” John Locke Two Treatises of Government, 1988, 265–428.

 2Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992

 3Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Volume 41, Issue 3, Autumn 2021, Pages 719–749,

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