“I don’t drink Starbucks.” That used to be my mantra. They had destroyed Spinelli’s and were squeezing Martha’s, and I did not appreciate it. It wasn’t that I did not love their orange-mocha frappuccinos (I did), but I felt like buying their coffee would be an unforgivable breach of my ethical codes. Today, I’m an addict. What changed? I heard about their contributions to local communities and their—supposedly—great labor practices (free dental care), and I moved to a city with no Martha’s. Starbucks’ public image campaign won them at least one loyal customer, and maybe my holding out on them until they proved themselves less of a villain won one of their employees an all-expenses paid root canal. The idea of ethical consumerism, that a consumer can and should choose what to buy with regard to the ethical implications of the purchase, is not exactly novel, but the practice of ethical consumerism has exploded in recent years. The consumption of fair-trade products, for example, doubled between 2002 and 2003 alone, according to the Fairtrade Foundation’s 2003 report. Companies have caught on that people want to feel good about what they buy, and consumers have caught on that our wallets give us power. And so, products are being created expressly with the ethical consumer in mind.

Ethos Water, recently acquired by Starbucks, is one such product. It is just water, and it costs $1.80 for a 700 mL bottle, and yet people like the idea that five cents of their money goes to providing clean water to the disadvantaged, and so they pay up and feel good about what they just bought. Companies with bad reputations are trying to patch up their image, like Gap, with its launch of the highly publicized Inspi(RED) campaign. The clothing giant, which has long been accused of exploiting third world countries through its use of sweatshop labor, has created a campaign that creates factories in African nations and donates large sums to support HIV/AIDS research in the Third World.

Buying as Protest

But do we buy into ethical consumption as a new form of activism to excuse ourselves from more proactive forms of protest, or is this actually a new, and perhaps more effective, form of making our voices heard? While I have done my share (probably a couple of people’s shares) of marching and letter-writing, it starts to seem a bit worn relatively quickly. On the other hand, the dollar is eternally powerful, and there are a lot of American dollars out there just waiting for their day to make a difference.

Essentially, we would all like to be ethical consumers, but as a goal, it is not so easy to attain. The first problem comes with the price tag. The “ethical” choice is usually the more expensive one—think Inspi(RED) T-shirts at $28—and often harder to find. You may really want local, organic produce, but then Morton Williams is just a few steps away. Or in the words of Brigitte Nacos, a political science professor at Columbia, “People who count every dollar are not going to buy organic food.”

Indeed, as a form of protest, ethical consumption is a luxury. Besides, to consume ethically, you must define your “ethics.” On its website, the British magazine Ethical Consumer posts a list of numerous sponsored boycotts, which range from major producers like Dolce and Gabbana (“for using a chimpanzee in an advert”) to flooring provider Tarkett, to countries like Burma, China, Canada, and then even the dental-care-providing Starbucks. When countries I usually think of as benevolent—Canada, not Burma—are blackballed “for the government-subsidized slaughter of over one million seals” and bad guys like Starbucks can turn good and then go back to bad, it gets hard to keep track of when consuming is correct. Besides which, my ethical choices depend on my ethical priorities: I might not care that Dolce and Gabbana used a chimp in an ad, or I could flout Ethical Consumer’s advice and buy from Maxwell House, even though it is a major donor to the Republican Party. The complications are endless. Local or organic? Fair-labor practices or economic sustainability? And ultimately it is up to the usually overworked consumer to keep herself informed.

The idea of ethical consumption seems to have undergone a shift away from the major campaigns and boycotts of generations past toward a more quotidian kind of conscious consuming. This has led to the endless confusion mentioned above. It is not often that people picket outside of companies they disagree with, or pour red paint on ladies in fur coats anymore.

And the focus has changed to people simply hesitating in the fruit aisle and eventually choosing the organic apple over the commercial one, because the implications of that apple’s past have come to the forefront of our consciousness as consumers. As Peter Thum, co- founder of Ethos Water, told BusinessWeek, “Every buyer is opting into the community by the simple act of purchasing the product.” All it takes, it seems, is a little educated shopping.

Do-Good or Feel-Good?

One of the most encouraging signs of ethical consumption’s success is that producers are starting to catch on to the consumer’s new desire, reshaping themselves accordingly. More and more often, companies are trying to clean up their image and keep it clean or are banking on consumers’ support of their chosen cause as a major selling point. The simple laws of supply and demand that we learned in Introduction to Economics overlooked something: it is not just quality and price that define demand––now people want morality too.

The crux of the matter, though, is whether all this demand will make a difference. Will companies reform only to the point of good appearances, to the point where customers feel good––even if they are not substantively doing any good?

Theoretically, a rise in the desire to consume ethically should motivate companies to behave better genuinely. Nacos stresses the role of traditional activists as educators of the public. “It is not necessarily that corporations determine the trends in society, but when they recognize them, they try to cater to them,” she said.

We may be seeing this kind of behavior in Gap’s Inspi(red) campaign. Gap recently paired with (RED), an initiative launched by Bono and Bobby Shriver, and in October of last year, they launched their highly publicized Inspi(red) campaign. The campaign consists of a new line of clothing, half of whose profits will be given to the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in women and children in Africa. Emporio Armani, Converse and Motorola have all signed on to the same effort, making it a truly massive source of funding. Melissa Swanson, a spokesperson for Gap, told me that since the October launch, the campaign has raised enough money to cover annual antiretroviral drugs for over 20,000 women and children in Africa.

Does this mean that Gap, chastised in the past for its use of sweatshops, has reformed completely? Well, no. First off, I might be skeptical of their motives, though, to be fair, when I spoke with Swanson, she told me that the company has a long-standing dedication to corporate responsibility and that “Product (Red) is an expansion of the work we’ve done in Africa for years.” That said, consumer pressure has not made the issue of sweatshop labor disappear. In the FAQ section of its website, Gap wavers: “It’s difficult for any apparel company to make a definitive statement about sweatshops because, unfortunately, they are a very real issue in the garment industry.”

Gap’s efforts to improve, though, appear remarkable. In 2004, they released a sixty-page report called “Facing Challenges, Finding Opportunity” on the conditions of the company’s factories and on methods of factory monitoring and screening. They are obviously trying to reshape the public’s perception, and they may actually be making a difference in the mean time. When I talked to Greg Rossiter, another spokesperson for Gap, he said, “The factories we source in Africa are highly monitored. We are proud of our association with them.”

Gap now rates all its factories and monitors them for violations. In the past, the company has refused to do business with 15 to 16 percent of screened factories, whose violations were too severe. This kind of gesture sends a strong message to the garment industry that fair(er) labor practices are now expected and required. So Gap’s image gets cleaned up, and by proxy, so do the factories and their labor practices. All this could be due to the magnanimity of Gap’s chief executives, but I’m tempted to think that it is at least in part a reaction to some outside pressures.

Another advantage touted by the supporters of campaigns like Inspi(red) is that it is a way to raise consciousness about the issues at hand. In BusinessWeek’s article on Gap’s campaign, Don Cheadle is quoted as saying, “Hopefully this campaign will help people educate themselves and get them interested about what’s happening in the world beyond our own borders.” Certainly, the celebrity-filled ads cannot but help attract attention to the campaign and its goal. The fact remains, though, that the AIDS epidemic in Africa is no secret, and that the ads do not draw attention directly to the crisis. They draw attention to celebrities wearing new clothes that––supposedly––you should go buy.

So how effective is ethical consumption as a form of activism? That depends on the level of dedication of its activists, “If certain demands and trends persist, then it will have an effect,”’ said Nacos. But she was hesitant. “Unfortunately consumers are pretty fickle,” she said.

To be a true ethical consumer takes a lot of research and a lot of willingness to go out of one’s way. It means investigating your products, investigating their distributors, getting there without polluting and spending the extra money. That said, to be a true traditional activist takes no less work. Most people just want to make a difference in whatever small way they can. The voice of the consumer, when backed up by the dollar, is one that will be heard. And companies will be forced to listen.